Saturday, April 12, 2008

Roald Dahl (author)

Yes, I know Roald Dahl is an extremely successful author of young adult books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and Matilda. That Roald Dahl is hardly forgotten.

But I'm taking about a different Roald Dahl. Or rather a different incarnation that seems to have been forgotten and, for my money, is even better.

Dahl also wrote stories for adults. They are often classified as mysteries (and he ended up winning three Edgar Awards), but they really are hard to classify. I first discovered him when a college roommate of mine said that Dahl was the best writer out there. I picked up a collection, and, at first, didn't quite get him.  Then it clicked and I realized just how great he was.

What makes his stories really stand out are his endings.

Dahl was the master of the twist ending.  He would play upon your expectations and then pull the rug out from under you in the last paragraph, doing it so deftly that you never saw it coming. He also regularly did something that few authors have ever managed at all: the anticlimax ending. It's a twist that makes the entire story seem anticlimactic, yet, in Dahl's hands, it's extremely satisfying.

Some of my favorites include:

  • "Lamb to the Slaughter." This is his most famous story, about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and then has to dispose of the weapon.  It was dramatized on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and actually directed by Hitchcock, who liked Dahl so much the he directed four episodes adapted from Dahl's stories). When I mention the name of the author, people are surprised.
  • "The Man From the South." A man wagers his lighter can work ten times in a row.  If it does, he gets a car.  If not . . .
  • "Poison." A man living in India wakes up to find a deadly poisonous snake on his chest.
  • "Taste." A man wagers he can identify a wine down to the exact village, simply by tasting it.
  • "Dip in the Pool." Another man wagers (a  lot of Dahl stories involved betting) on how far the steamship he is on will travel. When he discovers he may lose everything in the bet, he comes up with a solution.
  • Not exactly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory "The Great Switcheroo." A man devises a way to sleep with his best friend's wife, while his friend sleeps with his. The twist here is hilarious.
  • "Bitch." Yet another man develops an aphrodisiac perfume, and sets up a plot to embarrass the President. This has one of the best final lines in all of literature. It also causes problems for Roald Dahl web pages, since they can't discuss it in front of the children.

Dahl's output was relatively meager -- 51 stories -- and fewer and fewer as his success as a children's author grew. The end of anthology series on TV also helped speed his stories becoming obscure (he hosted Tales of the Unexpected in 1979, a show originally devoted to dramatizing his stories, but it was primarily successful in the UK), as did the fact he didn't have any success as a novelist (his one adult novel, My Uncle Oswald, is pretty much an expansion of Bitch, but isn't all that good -- if your forte is twist endings, then a novel is not going to let you do what you do best).

Nearly all of Dahl's short fiction has been collected in his Collected Stories. It's a fine place to discover on of the best adult fiction writers of the 20th century.


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thanks for an interesting post. I am a teacher and my class is about to undertake CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I did some research on Dahl, hoping to find some insight into his motivation for writing the stories he wrote-- it's kind of a murky pond; people have different opinions on him. I will be sure to check out his short stories, though, in an attempt to understand Dahl the Writer better. Thanks again!

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter One is online!

Chuck Rothman said...

I think you can see some of the trends in the short stories repeated in the Children's book. You certainly see his dark imagination in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," where each kid except Charlie suffers a funny/nasty fate.