Hector Hugh Munro (18 December 1870 – 14 November 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, and additionally frequently as H. H. Munro, was a British writer whose witty, mischievous and at times macabre storeys satirise Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story, and often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. Influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, he himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward and P. G. Wodehouse.
Besides his short storeys (which were first published in newspapers, as was customary at the time, and then collected into several volumes), he wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland); and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion and occupation of Britain.
Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab, British Burma, which was then still part of the British Raj, and was governed from Calcutta under the authority of the Viceroy of India. Saki was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, by his marriage to Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist as Dornford Yates.
In 1872, on a home visit to England, Mary Munro was charged by a cow, and the shock caused her to miscarry. She never recovered and soon died.
After the death of Munro's mother, Charles Munro sent his children, including two-year-old Hector, home to England. The children were sent to Broadgate Villa, in Pilton village near Barnstaple, North Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. It is said that they were most likely models for a few of his characters, notably 'The Lumber Room' and 'Sredni Vastar". Undoubtedly the days of his youth would provide much fodder for his future career. Leading slightly insular lives Munro and his siblings, throughout their early years were educated under tutelage of governesses. At the age of 12 the young Hector Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and then as a boarder at Bedford School. After he retired from Burma, Charles Munro travelled with Hector and his sister to fashionable European spas and resorts.
Hector is reported to have escaped once to a country house near the Aunts, before following his father in 1893 into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.
At the start of World War I Munro was 43 and officially over-age to enlist, but he refused a commission and joined the 2nd King Edward's Horse as an ordinary trooper. He later transferred to the twenty-second Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, in which he rose to the rank of lance sergeant. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured. In November 1916 he was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, throughout the Battle of the Ancre, when he was killed by a German sniper. According to several sources, his last words were "Put that bloody cigarette out!"
Munro has no known grave. He is commemorated on Pier and Face 8C 9A and 16A of the Thiepval Memorial.
After his death his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.
Munro was homosexual, but in Britain at that time sexual activity between men was a crime. The Cleveland Street scandal (1889), followed by the downfall of Oscar Wilde (1895), meant "that side of [Munro's] life had to be secret".
The pen name "Saki" might be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem mentioned disparagingly by the eponymous character in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" and alluded to in a few additional stories. This reference is stated as fact by Emlyn Williams in his introduction to a Saki anthology published in 1978. Notwithstanding "Saki" might additionally or instead be a reference to the South American monkey of that name, which at least two commentators, Tom Sharpe and Will Self, have connected to the "small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that's a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington".
Munro started his writing career as a journalist for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook. His first book The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, appeared in 1900, under his real name.
From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday), and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London. Many of his storeys from this period feature Reginald and Clovis, young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional, pretentious elders.
Shortly before the First World War, when "invasion literature" was selling well, Munro published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns", imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering and occupying Britain.
Much of Saki's work contrasts the conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature. Nature generally wins in the end.
"The Interlopers" is a storey about two men, Georg Znaeym and Ulrich von Gradwitz, whose families have fought over a forest in the eastern Carpathian Mountains for generations. Ulrich's family legally owns the land, but Georg, believing that it rightfully belongs to him, hunts there anyway. One winter night Ulrich catches Georg hunting in his forest. Neither man can shoot the additional without warning, as they would soil their family’s honour, so they hesitate to acknowledge one another. As an "act of God" a tree branch suddenly falls on each of them, trapping them both under a log. Gradually they realise the futility of their quarrel, become friends and end the feud. They call out for their men’s assistance and, after a brief period, Ulrich makes out nine or ten figures approaching over a hill. The storey ends with Ulrich’s realisation that the "interlopers" on the hill are actually wolves. It is then implied that each man was to be killed.
"Gabriel-Ernest" starts with a warning: "There is a wild beast in your woods …" As the storey proceeds we learn from the narrator that Gabriel, a naked boy sunbathing by the river, is indeed wild, feral, in fact a werewolf. The climax comes when Gabriel is revealed to have taken a small child home from Sunday school. A pursuit ensues, but Gabriel and the child disappear near a river. The only items found are Gabriel's clothes, and the two are never seen again.
"The Schartz-Metterklume Method"
At a railway station an arrogant and overbearing woman, Mrs Quabarl, mistakes the mischievous Lady Carlotta, who has been inadvertently left behind by a train, for the governess, Miss Hope, whom she has been expecting, Miss Hope having erred about the date of her arrival. Lady Carlotta decides not to correct the mistake, acknowledges herself as Miss Hope, a proponent of "the Schartz-Metterklume method" of making children understand history by acting it out themselves, and chooses the Rape of the Sabine Women (exemplified by a washerwoman's two girls) as the first lesson.
"The Toys of Peace"
Preferring not to give her young sons toy soldiers or guns, and having taken away their toy depicting the Siege of Adrianople, Eleanor instructs her brother Harvey to give them innovative "peace toys" as an Easter present. When the packages are opened young Bertie shouts "It's a fort!" and is disappointed when his uncle replies "It's a municipal dustbin." The boys are initially baffled as to how to obtain any enjoyment from models of a school of art and a public library, or from little figures of John Stuart Mill, Felicia Hemans and Sir John Herschel. Youthful inventiveness finds a way, however, as the boys combine their history lessons on Louis XIV with a lurid and violent play-story about the invasion of Britain and the storming of the Young Women's Christian Association. The end of the storey has Harvey reporting failure to Eleanor, explaining "We have begun too late."
An aunt is travelling by train with her two nieces and a nephew. The children are naughty and mischievous. A bachelor is sitting opposite. The aunt starts telling a moralistic story, but is unable to satisfy the children's curiosity. The bachelor intervenes and tells a storey in which the "good" person ends up being unwittingly devoured by a wolf, to the children's delight. The bachelor is amused by the thought that in the future the children will embarrass their guardian by begging to be told "an improper story."
"The Open Window"
Framton Nuttel, a nervous man, has come to stay in the country for his health. His sister, who thinks he should socialise while he's there, has given him letters of introduction to families in the neighbourhood whom she got to know when she was staying there a few years previously. Framton goes to visit Mrs Sappleton and, while he's waiting for her to come down, is entertained by her fifteen-year-old, witty niece. The niece tells him that the French window is kept open, even though it is October, because Mrs Sappleton believes that her husband and her brothers, who were killed in a shooting accident three years before, will come back one day. When Mrs Sappleton comes down she talks about her husband and her brothers, and how they're going to come back from shooting soon, and Framton, believing that she's deranged, tries to distract her by talking about his health. Then, to his horror, Mrs Sappleton points out that her husband and her brothers are coming, and he sees them walking towards the window with their dog. He thinks he's seeing ghosts and runs away. Mrs Sappleton can't understand why he has run away and, when her husband and her brothers come in, she tells them about the odd man who has just left. The niece explains that Framton Nuttel ran away because of the spaniel: he's afraid of dogs after he was hunted by a pack of stray dogs in India and had to spend a night in the newly dug grave with creatures grinning and foaming just above him. The last line summarises the story, saying of the niece, "Romance at short notice was her speciality."
Saki's recurring hero Clovis Sangrail, a sly young man, overhears the complacent middle-aged Huddle complaining of his own addiction to routine and aversion to change. Huddle's friend makes the wry suggestion that he needs an "unrest-cure" (the opposite of a rest cure), to be performed, if possible, in the home. Clovis takes it upon himself to "help" the man and his sister by involving them in an invented outrage that will be a "blot on the twentieth century".
A baroness tells Clovis about a hyena that she and her friend Constance encountered alone in the countryside, and that can't resist the urge to stop for a snack. Later on, the hyena is killed by a motorcar. The baroness immediately claims the corpse as her beloved Esmé and the chagrined driver sends her a diamond brooch to make up for her "loss."
A sickly child named Conradin is raised by his cousin and guardian, Mrs De Ropp, who "would never... have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him 'for his good' was a duty which she didn't find particularly irksome". Conradin rebels against his cousin and her choking authority. He invents a religion in which his pole-cat ferret is imagined as a vengeful deity, and Conradin prays that "Sredni Vashtar" will deliver retribution upon De Ropp. When De Ropp attempts to dispose of the animal, it attacks and kills her. The entire household is shocked and alarmed, but Conradin calmly butters another piece of toast.
At a country-house party, one guest, Cornelius Appin, announces to the others that he has perfected a procedure for teaching animals human speech. He demonstrates this on his host's cat, Tobermory. Soon it is clear that animals are permitted to view a large number of private things on the assumption that they'll remain silent, such as the host Sir Wilfred's commentary on one guest's intelligence and the hope that she'll buy his car, or the implied sexual activities of a few of the additional guests. The guests are angered, especially when Tobermory runs away to pursue a rival cat, but plans to poison him fail when Tobermory is instead killed by the rival cat. "An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement." Appin is killed shortly afterwards when attempting to teach an elephant in a zoo in Dresden to speak German.
Tom Yorkfield, a farmer, receives a visit from his half-brother Laurence. Tom has no great liking for Laurence or respect for his profession as a painter of animals. Tom shows Laurence his prize bull and expects him to be impressed, but Laurence nonchalantly tells Tom that he has sold a painting of a different bull, which Tom has seen and doesn't like, for three hundred pounds. Tom is angry that a mere picture of a bull should be worth more than his real bull. This and Laurence's condescending attitude give him the urge to strike him. Laurence, running away across the field, is attacked by the bull, but is saved by Tom from serious injury. Tom, looking after Laurence as he recovers, feels no more rancour because he knows that, however valuable Laurence's painting might be, only a real bull like his can attack someone.
"The East Wing"
This is a "rediscovered" short storey that was previously cited as a play. A house party is beset by a fire in the middle of the night in the east wing of the house. Begged by their hostess to save "my poor darling Eva – Eva of the golden hair," Lucien demurs, on the grounds that he has never even met her. It is only on discovering that Eva isn't a flesh-and-blood daughter but Mrs Gramplain's painting of the daughter she wished that she had had, and which she has faithfully updated with the passing years, that Lucien declares a willingness to forfeit his life to rescue her, after "death in this case is more beautiful," a sentiment endorsed by the Major. As the two men disappear into the blaze, Mrs Gramplain recollects that she "sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned". The two men have lost their lives for nothing.
- 1899 "Dogged" (short story, appeared as written by H. H. M. in St. Paul's, 18 February)
- 1900 The Rise of the Russian Empire (history)
- 1902 "The Woman Who Never Should" (political sketch in the Westminster Gazette, 22 July)
- 1902 The Not So Stories (political sketches in The Westminster Annual)
- 1902 The Westminster Alice (political sketches with illustrations by F. Carruthers Gould)
- 1904 Reginald (short stories)
- 1910 Reginald in Russia (short stories)
- 1911 The Chronicles of Clovis (short stories)
- 1912 The Unbearable Bassington (novel)
- 1913 When William Came (novel)
- 1914 Beasts and Super-Beasts (short stories, including "The Lumber-Room")
- 1914 "The East Wing" (short story, in Lucas's Annual / Methuen's Annual)
- 1919 The Toys of Peace (short stories)
- 1924 The Square Egg and Other Sketches (short stories)
- 1924 "The Watched Pot" (play, co-authored with Charles Maude)
- 1926-27 The Works of Saki (8 volumes)
- 1930 The Complete Short Stories of Saki
- 1933 The Complete Novels and Plays of Saki (including The Westminster Alice)
- 1934 The Miracle-Merchant (in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8)
- 1950 The Best of Saki (edited by Graham Greene)
- 1963 The Bodley Head Saki
- 1976 The Complete Saki
- 1976 Short Stories (edited by John Letts)
- 1981 six previously uncollected storeys in Saki, a biography by A. J. Langguth
- 1988 Saki: The Complete Saki, ISBN 978-0-14-118078-6
- 1995 The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, and Other Stories
- 2006 A Shot in the Dark (a compilation of 15 uncollected stories)
- 2010 Improper Stories, Daunt Books (18 short stories)
The fifth broadcast of Orson Welles' series for CBS Radio, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, from 8 August 1938, dramatises three short storeys rather than one long story. The second of the three storeys is "The Open Window."
A dramatisation of "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" was an episode in the series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1960.
Saki: The Improper Stories of H. H. Munro (a reference to the ending of "The Story Teller") was an eight-part series produced by Philip Mackie for Granada Television in 1962. Actors involved included Mark Burns as Clovis, Fenella Fielding as Mary Drakmanton, Heather Chasen as Agnes Huddle, Richard Vernon as the Major, Rosamund Greenwood as Veronique and Martita Hunt as Lady Bastable.
- The Playboy of the Week-End World (1977) by Emlyn Williams, adapts 16 of Saki's stories.
- Wolves at the Window (2008) by Toby Davies, adapts 12 of Saki's stories.
- Saki Shorts (2003) is a musical based on nine storeys by Saki, with music, book and lyrics by John Gould and Dominic McChesney.
- Miracles At Short Notice (2011) by James Lark is another musical based on short storeys by Saki.
- Life According to Saki (2016) by Katherine Rundell is a new play inspired by the life and work of Saki.