I have heard it said that the combination of horror and comedy is impossible to achieve and should not be attempted. I suppose that there may be further things from the truth than that, but it is definitely within sighting distance of them. Horror and comedy are natural bedfellows: both arise from the absurd, from the intersection of disparate elements or realities, from the intrusion of the body into the realm of thought or the inversion of understandings. What’s more, the statement is disproved by a wide range of films—Braindead, Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, The Stuff, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tremors, The League of Gentlemen, Arachnophobia, Cabin Fever, Zombieland, etc, etc—that successfully blend the two. Sure, some of those may not work for a given viewer, but I would be very surprised to find someone who enjoyed none of them. What’s more, even if we didn’t have this huge collection of films to point to, there is also a grand tradition of horror comedy writings, more often thought of as witty tales of the supernatural. Ambrose Bierce belongs to this tradition. So does Neil Gaiman, at least sometimes.
But I’m not sure Saki does.
To clarify a little, several of the authors I’ve reviewed this month are authors that I’ve read before, but many of them aren’t. I compiled the list of readings for this month from a range of other lists of horror stories, ghost stories, etc. Saki appears on several of them, particularly ghost story lists oriented around the 1850-1920 time period, but, to be frank, I’m not sure why. . . .
Saki is a great writer, I don’t think there’s any question there. He’s a comedic writer who approaches pre-WWI British culture with acerbic wit, prompting a lot of spontaneous laughter as I read through the short story collection Beasts and Super-Beasts (the title a parody of Shaw’s Man and Superman). But his writing isn’t really horror-oriented, or even interested in horror. It has a refined sensibility that seems very distant from most of my other readings here.
There is however something for me to grasp onto here, which is the common morbidity of the content. While the tone remains airy, the stories often deal with death, murder, and madness, and when they don’t they deal with animals, specifically animals that seem to stand as an intrusion of real, insistent nature on the highly constructed, ordered lives of the wealthy. Humor here often derives from the effort to maintain appearances, or the manipulation of people through their barely-concealed fears and anxieties.
THE OPEN WINDOW
“‘My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,’ said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; ‘in the meantime you must try and put up with me.'”
Framton Nuttel is on a retreat for his nerves, but to prevent him from avoiding all society his sister has given him several letters of introduction, and so he finds himself visiting strangers. He tries to make small talk with the niece, confessing that he knows no one around here and his sister last visited four years ago. Learning that Framton knows nothing about her aunt, the niece tells him about a tragedy that happened three years ago, since the sister’s visit. She explains that there is a reason a large French window is being kept open:
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. … Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it. … Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. … Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—”
The aunt soon arrives and excuses the open window with the comment that “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting”, something that to Framton is “purely horrible” and he tries desperately “to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic” by talking instead about his nerves, and need to avoid mental excitement and physical exertion. Just then, the aunt’s eyes brighten up—”Here they are at last!”
“Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.”
Sure enough, he sees the three figures and the dog with them, nearing the house. When they call out, Framton suddenly jumps up and in a moment is running down the driveway. The husband remarks on the man who bolted away, and the aunt replies that he “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
The niece explains that he has a fear of dogs after having been trapped in a grave once by a pack of dogs on the bank of the Ganges. “Romance at short notice was her specialty.”
Like most of Saki’s tales, it’s very short and largely a single joke. The tone remains consistently elevated, but you can see how the subject matter is very much the stuff of horror; even the second false story the girl invents, about being trapped in a grave, has the tone of horror. This is also a trick that pureblood horror movies are known to play, not only with early scares, but even with the entire movie (obviously giving examples would be an exercise in unnecessary spoilers).
This story was a good, quick joke, as are most of Saki’s stories. I liked this collection a lot, and would definitely recommend it, but not for someone looking for horror. It’s more an exercise in subtly black humor. The elegant manner of Saki’s writing is also somewhat interesting in historical context; Beasts and Super-Beasts was published in 1914, the last collection Saki published before he was killed in WWI. As such, his characteristically dark humor seems a very apropos momento mori, almost prescient.
One side comment: although it’s not apparent here, one of the impressions that one gets reading Saki is of an extremely reactionary perspective. Although he satirizes social mores, he also routinely disparages socialism, labor movements, and women’s suffrage with very little justification—particularly the latter. There’s an uncomfortable amount of joking about anti-semitism as well. It’s a curious contradiction that his work is constantly striving against the social structures he lived in, and yet seems unable to believe in any alternative. Similar to a lot of humor today.
Tomorrow we look at another writer who writes comedy more than horror, but who lived on the other side of the two wars and on the other side of the political spectrum: Italo Calvino.
All quotations from The Complete Works of Saki, copyright 1976 Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.