Like most people, my introduction to Roald Dahl came as a child. Before I was old enough to legally sit in the front seat of the car I devoured books like Danny the Champion of the World, The Twits and the fantastic, fantastic, fantastic, The B.F.G. I consumed the books as I consumed Gary Rhodes Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes cooking show. I even got the cookbook for Christmas, and Bruce Bogtrotter cake remains one of my favourite recipes (sans blood, sweat and tears).
Many rainy Sunday afternoons were spent eating this cake in the company of Dahl’s books and the film adaptations (The Witchesis still terrifying). Through all this and my worn out audio book collection, I fell in love with Dahl’s world. His imagination, it seemed, was limitless, and it nurtured my own wild flights of fantasy along.
It wasn’t, however, until some time later that I came to Dahl’s adult stories, works such as Over to You and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Then, whilst skiving off uni lectures, I came across The Collected Short Stories in Waterstones, took it home (obviously I paid for it first. Or did I?), and lost myself for about a week. If you haven’t got it, go get it; it’s 762 pages of the most perfectly twisted tales you’ll ever find, including the entirety of Someone Like You (now 60 years young).
I’d like to share some of the highlights from this collection. To say they’re ‘the best’ seems dismissive of the rest of Dahl’s many, wonderful short stories. It might be better, then, to say these are my favourite and I hope, by explaining why I love them, I can encourage you to go out and check them out. If you disagree, or think I’ve missed anything off the list, let me know in the comments.
Lamb to the Slaughter
The beauty of many of Dahl’s short works of fiction lies in their simplicity. Here (Spoiler Alert) a dutiful wife, Mary Maloney, finally snaps when she learns her boorish policeman husband plans to leave her, with only three months to go until the birth of their first child. Mary snaps in the middle of cooking tea and batters her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb. When her husband’s colleagues turn up to investigate the murder, Mary feigns terrible grief whilst serving up a delicious roast for the officers, ensuring the evidence disappears beneath their noses.
It’s a fantastically brief and compact story, with layers of dormant feelings spilling out over the pages. We never find out the husband’s reasons for leaving his wife, we’re just told, ‘And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from here with each word.’ We don’t need to hear the reasons to emphasise with Mary’s reaction, and we can’t help but smile when she brings down the frozen leg of lamb on his head so hard ‘She might just as well have hit him with a steel club.’
A tattooist, Drioli takes in a young painter and during a night of drunken celebration allows the painter to tattoo his back. Many years later Drioli stumbles upon an exhibition of his old friend’s work. Unfortunately, the painter has long since died, meaning his work, and the tattoo on Drioli’s back, is now priceless. When a rich hotel owner offers to pay for Drioli to live a life of luxury, on the condition that he will allow people to look at the priceless work on his back, what could go wrong?
A brilliant and again, simple concept. Dahl’s genius here is not to spell out the horror that befalls Drioli. It’s clear what has happened, but Dahl skips from A to C, leaving our imaginations to fill in B. Especially worth a read for dialogue like this:
‘What is it that we celebrate?’ the boy asked without looking up. ‘Is it that you have decided to divorce your wife so she can marry me?’
‘No,’ Drioli said. ‘We celebrate because today I have made a great sum of money with my work.’
‘And I have made nothing. We can celebrate that also.’
One of many picaresque tales of old Uncle Oswald, The Visitor finds the old rogue adventuring out in the Middle East. The action begins when Oswald (and his latest trophy conquest) are forced to slide down the side of a great pyramid in order to escape the henchmen of a man whom Oswald’s libido has offended. Oswald escapes, deposits the girl by the side of the road, and roars off into the desert in his sports car. It isn’t long before the automobile claps up in the desert heat, leaving Oswald stranded. Thankfully, a local sheik takes Oswald in and transports him to his palace, where Oswald secretly plots to seduce the man’s beautiful wife and daughter. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s perhaps one of Dahl’s best twists.
The story is great as both homage to and a pastiche of classic adventure stories, and despite Oswald’s outdated views, ‘Egyptians wash themselves less thoroughly than any other peoples in the world’, you can’t help but root for the old rascal.
Beware of the Dog
Many of Dahl’s earlier short stories focus on his experiences as a fighter pilot during WW2. For the most part, these stories are more straightforward than his fantastical tales such as Bitch and The Sound Machine, but Beware of the Dog packs a twist to rival any of Dahl’s later work. The story centres on a British fighter pilot, waking up in an Allied hospital after being shot down over Africa during WW2. All seems pleasant enough (or as pleasant as it can be under the circumstances) but Squadron Leader Peter Williamson slowly begins to suspect things aren’t quite right, and it isn’t long before we start to agree.
Also worth reading for Dahl’s unparallel descriptions of flying: ‘Down below there was only a vast white undulating sea of cloud. Above there was the sun, and the sun was white like the clouds, because it is never yellow when one looks at it from high in the air.’
The Automatic Grammatizator
What would you do when a machine has been invented to churn out mass produced copies of books it’s programmed to think up itself, and all the best writers have been paid off not to write anymore? If you’re Roald Dahl, you’ll starve rather than give in. A story about writing, integrity and determination, which coincidently almost mirrors the modern music business.
‘As I sit here listening to the howling of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract...Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.’