Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The fiction of Saki (H.H. Munro) often verged off into a type of writing that qualified it for inclusion in horror anthologies. One such story is “The Open Window.” In this tale, we meet a young man, Framton Nuttel, who has been sent to the country to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. With only a letter of introduction in hand, he calls upon a woman named Mrs. Sappleton with whom his sister once stayed, and is greeted by the woman’s teenage niece. After ascertaining that Mr. Nuttel knows virtually nothing of her family or the neighborhood, the teenager relates a terrifying story of how her three uncles met their maker—so when the uncles walk in the open French doors with their little spaniel trotting beside them, the poor man runs out in a panic.
The story ends with a twist of irony when the teenager is asked why their guest ran out that way; she coolly replies that his behavior was the result of a trauma he experienced in India many years before: “I expect it was the spaniel….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.” Needless to say, both the story she told her guest and the story she told about him were totally fabricated on the fly—but the girl’s cool self-possession is really what makes the story so unnerving.
Again, this story provides a commentary on another characteristic Saki observed about Victorian-Edwardian times: the strong streak of cruelty that ran beneath even the most genteel scenarios. At no time in “The Open Window” is the teenage girl anything but excruciatingly polite to her guest. It was a common practice in those days for newcomers in the neighborhood to present themselves to their new neighbors with letters of introduction from a mutual acquaintance; this was a subtle way of determining that the newcomer was “all right” and no threat to the status quo of the neighborhood. The girl receives her guest with a show of politeness but then treats him with contempt, both by telling him the story that drives him away and then telling her relatives a tale about him that will convince them he is crazy.
Victorians did not receive outsiders kindly, and Munro, as an outsider himself—a sickly boy born of Scottish parents in Burma, raised by maiden aunts, shuttled off to boarding school at the age of twelve when he’d never been away from home before—undoubtedly felt the brunt of the Victorian’s hatred of the outsider most keenly. That sense of “otherness” is wonderfully conveyed in this quirky but dark tale.
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