I first came across this story on television one evening when I was 10 or 11. I can’t remember exactly who was reading it – in the short clip below it’s Tom Baker. It’s an episode from a series called ‘Late Night Story’ which fits the era so this is likely to be the version I saw, although I’m not sure why it should have been screened early in the evening: the opening titles are among the more disturbing examples of introduction sequences to TV programmes I’ve seen, and Tom Baker adds to the whole gothic experience in no small measure.
I remember being riveted by the strangeness of the story – here was something very different, almost like Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected – at the time showing on TV and not for children unless glimpsed unknown.
In this story, the sickly Conradin lives with his guardian, Mrs de Ropp, a sour and forbidding creature who drains any spirit from life. To counter this, in an outbuilding Conradin keeps animals – secretly – including the god-like ferret of the title, Sredni Vashtar.
At the time it was unlike anything I had come across, with its macabre seething and a conclusion unheard of outside a book of fairy tales. This was all the more shocking because of the polite Edwardian domesticity in which it is set, with toast-making rituals and tea. (Some may notice the recent theme of stoats and buttered toast and wonder that my memory has been jogged, although I think a love of toast may be simply what made these stories appeal… nothing like a glowing fireside and toast…)
One of my brothers soon bought a book of Saki’s collected stories (including some from the collection ‘Beast and Superbeasts’) and there were many more twisting tales to be found, often featuring wild nature disturbing a civilisation of excessive order and pomposity.
Saki (real name H.H Munro) was killed in the First World War, but his coolly-delivered, carefully-measured stories could have come from any time. In 1981 the director Andrew Birkin won a Bafta award for his 30-minute film adaptation which is worth seeking out (I believe the director has his own website with a download link).