Title: Srendi Vashtar
Author: Saki (Hector Hugh Munro or H.H. Munro)
Publishing Information: Included in The Weird, a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, published in the United States by Tor of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC 2012 New York, and in Great Britain by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltc., 2011, London
Source: My library
Short Bio: (18 December 1870 – 13 November 1916) H.H. Munro was born in Akyab, Burma (aka Myanmar), where his father, Charles Augustus Munro, was an Inspector-General for the Burmese Police. After the death of their mother in 1872, H.H. Munro, his brother, Charles, and sister, Ethel, were sent to live with their grandmother and aunts at Broadgate Villa in Pilton, a village near Barnstaple, North Devon (there is an annual Greenman festival held here every July). These matrons were strict and not averse to physical punishment, characteristics that play out in numerous of H.H. Munro’s stories, including Srendi Vashtar. In 1893, H.H. Munro joined the Colonial Burmese Military Police, however, a few years later, after contracting malaria, he resigned and moved back to England where he began his writing career as a journalist for various English papers (Daily Express, Bystander, The Morning Post, Outlook, Westminster Gazette). From 1902 to 1908 he was the foreign correspondent in eastern Europe and Paris for The Morning Post. During this time he wrote his historical treatise The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900). Throughout his journalistic career, he produced various short stories, plays and a handful of short novels, including When William Came (1913), an alternate reality novel centering on Britain after being conquered by Germany. In 1914 he registered with the 22nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, as a private, refusing a commission on the grounds that he could not lead without experience, and in 1916 died during a battle near Beaumount-Hamel in France. It is believed that many of H.H. Munro’s personal papers were destroyed by his sister Ethel shortly after his death. If this did occur, we are so much the poorer for it.
Comments on the Story (Spoiler Alert):
Srendi Vashtar was originally part of a short story collection called The Chronicles of Clovis published in 1911. It is compact and lithe, hitting all the right buttons to make it an exceptionally good short story. It doesn’t get bogged down in the details of place or time or background, but instead sets the mood right from the beginning with the pronouncement by a visiting doctor that our lead character, the ten year old Conradin, is on the precipice of death, and his last remaining days on this earth are to be spent in the care of his overbearing and rigid cousin, Mrs. DeRopp. She is a woman of strict rules which prohibit imagination, something more deadly to the boy than his lingering illness.
As the story progresses, you get the feeling that Mrs. DeRopp is more a product of her time than simply a woman with a penchant for torturing children, however, no matter the intentions behind her actions, they still end up being cruel. To evade her ever present eye, Conradin takes to spending his days in a tool-shed located in the garden. Within it he has two friends, a Houdin hen and a polecat-ferret. The latter, a gift from the butcher’s boy, resides in a hutch near the back of the shed, locked away and hidden from all except those who have the key.
The more dismal his life becomes, the more Conradin showers his affections upon these two animals, eventually coming to view the fierce little ferret as a god which he names Srendi Vashtar. He holds great festivals to his new god, offering him flowers and berries from the garden and spices from the kitchen. But of course his actions do not go unnoticed, and eventually Mrs. DeRopp goes to the shed and discovers the Houdin hen, which she immediately sells. Conradin, saddened but not deterred, by dark of night and with ever increasing fervor, continues his worship of Srendi Vashtar, praying over and over again, “Do one thing for me, Srendi Vashtar”. And one night he does.
This story is beautifully wrought with just enough detail to set it firmly in a secluded Edwardian household – a place isolated enough that the unusual can become believable. For any student of literature familiar with the man versus XXX plot designations, this will be readily recognizable as a man versus nature theme and is delightfully one where nature most definitely wins. With minimal dialogue and tight narration, it flies by, drawing the reader into its web. There is something delectably sinister about the boy, whose reaction to his situation evokes the juxtaposition of sympathy and a shudder within the reader. It is part horror story and part adolescent rite of passage all rolled into one, bringing to mind such well known tales as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and William Trevor’s Miss Smith.
If you like this story, Project Guttenberg has most of H.H. Munro’s short story collections and two novels (When William Came and The Unbearable Bassington) available for free download: http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/s#a152.
And if you would like to watch a short film of Srendi Vashtar, check out the two part YouTube video by Guy Pitt and David Pollard: Part I (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pey46uZoxA) and Part II (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLeArh5fEn4). The second part, at least when I watched it, had a slight delay of two to three seconds between the dialogue and the action. [7/24/2014: Unfortunately, both of these videos now restrict access. I will leave the links in case someone actually has permission to view them. Here is a link to another movie of the story that has open permissions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S1Pwra7r2ghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S1Pwra7r2g]
Sources for Short Bio: