What do Matilda and a gruesome tale of a husband murderer have in common? Psychotic females certainly, but they were both also written by the same beloved children’s author whose short stories for adults often go forgotten.
Born in Wales to Norwegian parents in 1916, Roald Dahl enlisted with the Royal Air Force in Nairobi as a pilot officer when he was twenty-three, and it was not until he crash landed in a desert, fractured his skull, smashed his nose, and even survived the ‘Battle of Athens’, that he was transferred to Washington in 1942.
There, he met C.S. Forester, author of Captain Hornblower, who having received an article detailing his experiences wrote back saying, “Did you know you were a writer – I haven’t changed a word.” Enclosed was a check for $900 from the Saturday Evening Post, for Dahl’s account, Shot Down Over Libya.
Not unlike Dahl’s children’s books that often have moralistic themes in their narratives, his adult stories, written in the first 15 years of his writing career, also refrain from being didactic because of the shocking prose that delivers these morals. You learn to beware the addictive snares of gambling from Man from the South where said exotic man bets his Cadillac for a young sailor’s left little finger. From Skin, when a heavily varnished painting that resembles a tattoo on an old man’s back turns up in Buenos Aires, you learn not to be blinded by greed.
But perhaps what makes Dahl’s adult prose so dangerously seductive is the unsettling way he takes things familiar to us, whether it be archetypal characters or thoughts that everyone has (but tries to shut away) and tests their limits by using them in extraordinary circumstances.
In one of his more sinister stories, Lamb to the Slaughter, Dahl takes the stereotypical, eager-to-please traits of a housewife à la Meg in Pinter’s The Birthday Party and exaggerates them greatly to create Mary Maloney, a high-strung woman whose happiness is just a bit too dependent on her husband’s.
In one passage the hyperbolic repetition in the description of how she ‘loved’ everything about her husband, even the most pedestrian of traits, is disturbingly obsessive, and tragically so when his misinterpreted silent ‘tiredness’ is actually him contemplating how to tell her that he is leaving her. And what does she do? She does the only thing a mad housewife can do. She smashes his head in with the frozen leg of lamb she was about to cook for his dinner, creates an alibi, calls the police to report his death, and then serves the very murder weapon to the hungry policemen who have been investigating her husband’s death.
However, because Dahl’s adult works are much more daring than his children’s ones, they often elicit a polarised reaction from critics with a journalist even calling his risqué story, The Great Switcheroo, of two lusty men who decide, under the guise of nightfall, to sleep with the other man’s wife. Described as being “designed for an adolescent male audience in a pre-politically correct age where casual misogyny went even more unnoticed than now”. Strong words.
At the back of all his children’s books is often a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem ‘A Few Figs from Thistles’ that reads, “My candle burns at both ends/ It will not last the night/ But ah my foes, and oh, my friends/ It gives such lovely light. In the same way, Dahl’s creative range and ability to entertain both children and adults, despite the controversial latter, still give light to those who remember it.