Sunday, July 28, 2019

"The Open Window" (1911)

Saki is like a cross between Oscar Wilde and O. Henry—mechanical, perhaps, in the way his stories unfold, but the mechanics are self-aware and there in the service of wit. He wrote short (even short-short) stories that often deliver perverse twists at the end, predicated on our own unconscious expectations. Most intriguingly, his stories are also steeped in a familiarity with horror fiction, counting on the reader's own familiarity with it. As he put it himself in "The Music on the Hill," a story about the great god Pan, "It was all nonsense, of course, but ... nonsense [that] seemed able to rear a bastard brood of uneasiness." "The Open Window" involves an unnamed 15-year-old girl and a man with a bad case of nerves, Framton Nuttel. Nuttel is in the country for a rest cure, bearing letters of introduction and paying a visit on his new neighbors, the Sappletons. He has obviously read horror fiction, because when the girl, a niece of the Sappletons, starts up with what is either a ghost story or a tale of deranged family grief to explain why the window in the room is open in October, he believes every word. For that matter, so do we. Because why shouldn't we? Horror fiction makes us gullible and open to manipulation. Formally, "The Open Window" works much like a ghost story, complete with a strange and seemingly unnecessary frame, and there's even a little thrill when we think we see ghosts. Judging the whole effect, it's a good example of how subtle Saki can be, using misdirection. Things are not what they seem, but it's not the open window that's the problem, it's the girl. Yet even as she tells her fantastic story about the open window we're lulled into it quite easily. It makes perfect sense as a ghost story. Mrs. Sappleton's niece is one of Saki's most delicious creations. "The Open Window" ends on her spinning a whole new story to explain Nuttel's abrupt departure: "'I expect it was the spaniel,' said the niece calmly; 'he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.'" In a way, she's covering for Nuttel. "Romance at short notice was her specialty," Saki concludes about this girl.

In case it's not at the library. (Read story online.)


  1. "nonsense [that] seemed able to rear a bastard brood of uneasiness," seems like a clever definition of the whole horror aesthetic, no? or a nice shot at one, anyway.