Weird #4 Srendi Vashtar by Saki (1910)

In “Srendi Vashtar” (1908) by Saki, a sickly boy named Conradin has a lively imagination exasperated by the dreariness of his Edwardian childhood. Having been given five years to live by a doctor whose “opinion counted for very little” (53), he declares, in the midst of his loneliness and boredom, that his polecat-ferret is a god. Founding his own personal religion, he names the “great ferret” Srendi Vashtar (54), an appellation whose syllables could have been lifted from Vedas.

This fourth story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is a short story by one of Edwardian England’s most satirical wits who was also a master of the macabre. Saki is the pen name for Hector Hugh Muro, who likely based Conradin’s puritanical cousin on his personal experience growing up in North Devon. According to Wikipedia and Emlyn Williams, he chose the name ‘Saki’ not because he was overfond of sake, the Japanese rice wine, but because ‘Saki’ is the name of a cup bearer in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. 

“Srendi Vashtar” not only skewers the stuffiness of Edwardian society, but strikes me as a send-up of the pagan revival trope. More than anything else, this story reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, in the sense that it too comes across as a variant of the Greek myth of Bacchus and Pentheus. Ovid in The Metamorphoses describes how the cult of the god of wine and sex, Bacchus, gains high popularity in the city of Thebes. Pentheus, roughly the ancient Greek equivalent of a puritan, tries to shut the cult down but after denouncing it exhaustively, he is torn to pieces by a frenzied crowd of Bacchus worshipers.

In the same way, Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin’s guardian, tries to get rid of the great ferret, Srendi Vashtar. In the end, Conradin prays to his god, chanting “loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Srendi Vashtar went forth,

His thoughts were red thoughts

and his teeth were white.

His enemies called for peace,

but he brought them death.

Srendi Vashtar the Beautiful.” (55)

In the end, Srendi Vashtar gets the better of Mrs. De Ropp and “Conradin made himself another piece of toast” (55).

Next week, I review another classic weird tale, “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1911).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Feel disconnected from your childhood lately? Although I am not a licensed psychiatrist, or a doctor of any sort, let me recommend to you The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

Never fear: it is not a pill that is bitter to the taste, although it is certainly not sugar coated. Inviting and familiar, it runs down smooth, putting you right to sleep and bringing you straight into the dream-realm, where you re-experience horrors you may have forgotten from your childhood—or perhaps some you still remember.

“I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Such words were spoken by Maurice Sendak in Gaiman’s epigraph to his short novel. The line of dialogue might have been spoken by the protagonist of Ocean.

Like a frequent number of Gaiman’s novels (including American Gods and Anansi Boys), Ocean opens with a funeral. The name of the deceased and the name of the middle-aged narrator are never mentioned. However, from the very first line, we are aware the protagonist has unresolved childhood issues, as he seeks out the old (very old) Hempstock Farm, near the duck pond at the end of the lane near his now-demolished childhood home.

Lettie Hempstock, who was his only friend from when he was seven years old, has moved to Australia. But there is far more to her than meets the eye. She called the duck pond at the end of the lane an ocean, and though she appeared to be twelve years old, she had an ageless look in her eyes and a familiarity with the supernatural world well beyond her years.

Trouble begins when an opal miner from South Africa commits suicide in a stolen car at the end of the lane. The event triggers a series of mysterious happenings. It is not long before the middle-aged man’s seven-year-old self is drawn into the very thick of it. Adventures involving monstrous nannies, thunderstorms, hunger birds, and fairy rings ensue. Lettie is the boy’s only hope of returning to the normal world and he must hold onto her hand for dear life, when faced with terrors that threaten to undo everything he treasures.

In the midst of these horrors, Gaiman writes with poetry and humour. The chapters of The Ocean at the End of the Lane read like highly sensory, nostalgic vignettes, where one indulges in the feeling and breathing in of childhood memories. He does this without becoming a William Wordsworth, leaving Tintern Abbey for the Gothic ruins of another, more dangerous supernatural world.

Me and Neil.
Me and Neil at the Rialto.

Gaiman’s casual mentioning of the impossible creates humour, such as when Old Mrs. Hempstock investigates the age of a coin by looking at it hard enough to see electron decay. That particular moment also made the Rialto Theatre in Montreal burst our laughing, when Gaiman was in town for his book tour—an event I was lucky enough to attend.

Fusing the realistic present-day to the fantastic and the cosmologically ancient has to be Gaiman’s signature way to set up a story. It makes for a combination that causes us to look in our own world for traces of the fantastic. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminds us of this supernatural presence in our world and invites us to look back upon the dark corners and in-between spaces of our childhood, where we did not always follow the paved, repeatedly-traveled roads that adults follow out of routine.

Many readers who pick up this book will be inspired to run across fields and forests and leap over fences, or, if they prefer, only take the road less traveled. An excellent cure for the ennui of adulthood, Ocean makes for an ideal end-of-summer read.

Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Photo Credits

Neil Gaiman: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/211547701.html

Cover Page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15783514-the-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane