Saki’s short stories are set in upper class England in the late 1800s. This is a world of predictable tea parties and quiet life, a world of order in which the possibility of training kids to be non-violent seems an achievable reality. But as the back cover of the book asserts, “to the Saki hero, the world is on the edge of chaos, needing only a nudge...” In most of the stories the ugly nature of people or the world at large asserts itself. Sometimes the chaos is instigated, as in the case of Clovis or Vera, who arrange events or withhold information because they enjoy disruption. Sometimes human nature is recognized and controlled, by the man who had a large house he could not sell and instead rented it to multiple families, but recognizing that the women would fight, specifically hired one woman to act unfriendly and be a lightning rod such that they all fought with her and not each other. Other times the ugly nature of children surprised the adults who had not imagined it possible. Occasionally a character plays on human nature and suffers the consequences. Yet other times it is nature itself, such as when a man moves to an area but does not believe the stories about Pan, angers the god, and pays the penalty.
Like many short stories, Saki’s stories end far from where they begin. The woman and her daughter hoping to sneak into the tea party (to which they were uninvited) are foiled by Vera, who plays on their fears of the (quite docile) pet pig. The orderly vacation turns chaotic. The quiet husband turns out to be hiding something. The father’s wish that his sons become someone is granted not through the diligent son in the army, but the writer of comic verses for the common theatre who strikes a chord with one verse, becomes wildly popular, and is knighted because of it. The teller of boring stories spices them up with lies, but after an initial excitement, when a truly interesting story comes along, he is not believed. The woman overly proud of her garden is put to shame by the garden of her host, who had only recently learned of a rental garden service, specifically for such purposes.
Just as O'Henry paints a vivid picture of early twentieth century America, so Saki gives a detailed picture of the British upper class of his time period. Both paint their images without that purpose in mind, but because they write about imaginary people in a real time period, and because both are descriptive writers, they both act as time capsules of a sort.
It is unclear what Saki’s view of life and human nature is. Judging from his stories, nature is cruel, adults are boring, and children are more capable of evil than adults assume. His stories have a cynical feel to them, as if order is not possible, and something will see to that. This is rather unlike O'Henry, where goodness, justice, and love ultimately prevail (although not necessarily a happy ending), where lovers sacrifice their best for each other, and a highly successful but uncaught safe cracker reveals himself because he values saving the life of a child trapped in a safe. For both authors, events conspire against the character, but for Saki, events usually disrupt the characters’ lives, while events for O'Henry tend to serve as opportunities to reveal character.
This is a enjoyable collection of short stories, particularly if you enjoy surprise endings.