Friday, March 18, 2011

Compressed Malevolence - #21

STORY: "Sredni Vashtar" by Saki (H.H. Munro) – You can Google this one.


BASICALLY: A sickly orphan boy is denied every possible pleasure by the sanctimonious relative with whom he's been sent to live. But he has a secret: a polecat-ferret in a wooden hutch, hidden at the back of an old forgotten toolshed. In his misery, he worships the beast and plies it with gifts like a god. And of his deity he asks only one small favor...

This story is wound tight as a watch spring. It's very short—under 1800 words—but it packs a wallop of suspense and a satisfying ending into its few pages. A search of them thar internets reveals that it's been adapted into operas and films and whatnot, and I have to wonder if its power to seize the imagination of others has to do as much with its spareness and restraint as with the merits of its own plot.

What I mean is that ten-year-old Conradin and his cousin Mrs. De Ropp are set up very clearly and immediately in opposition, but the details of their relationship are only sketched in. 

Mrs. De Ropp was Conradin's cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things—such as illnesses and coddling restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago. 
Saki's opening is part JANE EYRE and part Tom & Jerry; we are able to understand this clash so well and so immediately because it hits on a number of relatable archetypal conflicts—young vs. old, weak vs. strong, orderly vs. imaginative, restriction vs. liberty, etc. The story as written is missing nothing, yet it could be easily elaborated upon in other versions.

Once Saki has his protagonist in place, opposed by a mortal enemy, he sets up the stakes that will bring things to a head. Conradin has two secret pets, "a ragged-plumaged Houdan hen, on which the boy lavished an affection that had scarcely another outlet," and the ferret. The former is merely something he loves, but the latter becomes something much more. 

And one day, out of Heaven knows what material, he spun the beast a wonderful name, and from that moment it grew into a god and a religion…Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret. Red flowers in their season and scarlet berries in the winter-time were offered at his shrine, for he was a god who laid some special stress on the fierce impatient side of things, as opposed to the Woman's religion, which, as far as Conradin could observe, went to great lengths in the contrary direction. 
Check out the formality of Saki's language. There's often the sense, in writing circles, that you can be the kind of writer who assembles elaborate and elevated sentences, or you can be the kind who goes for the punch in the gut. But Saki demonstrates that you can be both.

Once Saki has shown how important the animals are to the love- and pleasure-starved Conradin, chiefly through summary and telling, his next step is to have Mrs. De Ropp do the most horrible thing she can—that is, to take them away. First, she sells the hen. 

With her short-sighted eyes she peered at Conradin, waiting for an outbreak of rage and sorrow, which she was ready to rebuke with a flow of excellent precepts and reasoning. But Conradin said nothing: there was nothing to be said. Something perhaps in his white set face gave her a momentary qualm, for at tea that afternoon there was toast on the table, a delicacy which she usually banned on the ground that it was bad for him; also because the making of it "gave trouble," a deadly offence in the middle-class feminine eye. 
If Saki had skipped the bit about the hen, which, after all, isn't vital to the plot, he would have lost this marvelous opportunity for building suspense. Just like Mrs. De Ropp, we would expect Conradin to have a reaction to the loss of something we've been told he loves so dearly. The fact that he doesn't hints that something much bigger is coming, a foreshadowing sharpened by the "momentary qualm."

Something else happens in this scene: there's a turn in the story. Up till this point, Conradin has been merely a victim, suffering under the thumb of Mrs. De Ropp. But at this (emotionally) brutal act, something changes. And Saki creates this turn in two important ways.

  1. He specifically doesn't TELL us that it's taken place. Saki's not at all averse to telling, as the story's first half demonstrates, but here, he's curiously silent. That, in itself, speaks volumes.
  2. For the first time in the story, Saki includes dialogue:
    "I thought you liked toast," she exclaimed, with an injured air, observing that he did not touch it.
    "Sometimes," said Conradin.
    I absolutely love the subtlety of this. It had never occurred to me before that dialogue could serve this purpose. But in the compressed space of this story, those two little lines break the narrative flow. For the first time, we hear the voice of the protagonist—and there's a LOT he's not saying. The lines become a hinge between the two parts of the story, representing structurally the change that has occurred in Conradin.
As Saki unfolds his climax (Mrs. De Ropp realizes something remains in the toolshed and goes in after it) and the aftermath (which you can read for yourself—seriously, just Google the story—but suffice it to say that it's deliciously grisly in an understated way), he evokes a sort of supernatural menace through equally subtle means. For example, Conradin's guardian is described as "Mrs. De Ropp" only once more after their conversation. After that, she becomes merely "the Woman" (a seed planted in the above quote about religion), shedding her human identity and becoming an object that can be destroyed.

In the story's second half, Saki also begins repeating the ferret's exotic name. In fact, "Sredni Vashtar" comes up five times in a page and a half; its increase is like an incantation, mirroring the story's heightening tension. Mrs. De Ropp loses her name as the ferret god comes into his own.

"Sredni Vashtar" is an entertaining story of suspense founded on fairly straightforward principles: archetypal conflict, stakes, setback, climax, aftermath. But its ability to thrill, to evoke a sense of wonder, comes from subtler techniques. The ending is made possible by the way the text—its structure and its content—unifies the uncanny with the mundane. Saki is a fine example of enjoyable storytelling compressed to its fundamentals.