Sunday, June 30, 2019

"The Lumber Room" (1914)

Saki was always so good at using children to set sinister tones in scenes that are really not sinister at all. "The Lumber Room" takes no turns toward violence, let alone the supernatural, yet it seethes with a malevolence that feels almost toxic. Nicholas is staying with his cousins and their aunt. He refuses to acknowledge her as his aunt. She is strict and can be punitive when challenged. On the morning of the story Nicholas claims he can't eat his breakfast because there is a frog in it. The aunt tells him there could not possibly be a frog in his "bread-and-milk." Nicholas describes it in detail and the aunt denies it more. But there is a frog because Nicholas put it there. He has exposed another lazy lying adult. The aunt, angry for his prank, grounds him for the day, barring him a jaunt to the beach with the other children. In addition, he is forbidden to go into the gooseberry garden, which the aunt evidently believes would be the main attraction for a boy confined at home for the day. But it is actually the lumber room that appeals to him, where old furniture, unwanted gifts, and other miscellaneous junk are kept out of sight. The aunt spends the day puttering about the place, ignoring Nicholas as further punishment. After a while she notices she doesn't know where he is, searches for him, and ends up in a predicament in which the tables are turned and she needs his help. It's more a matter of inconvenience than danger, but it's also not entirely clear, which makes the moment when Nicholas must decide what to do unusually fraught with tension. Then he makes his decision—to do the wrong thing. In these scant few paragraphs the tension is high. It's all of youth in conflict with all of age and the vulnerable pathos of Nicholas is remarkable. It's a daring and outrageous act in the moment, much like the lie the little girl will tell in "The Open Window." This tension and pathos is what Saki is good at. Nicholas is at once a typical annoying misbehaving boy and a kind of heroic figure, willfully mistreated by an adult who is supposed to know better. This adult, the aunt, is the one who gets the comeuppance in this story and she's the one who most deserves it, so it's as satisfying as it is entertaining.

In case it's not at the library.

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