November 9, 2011


The books we simply can’t allow you to borrow.

762 pages, Penguin

Cackling miser: Pat Black

I’ve cheated on this one a little bit. It’s been loaned out once or twice.

You can bet I made sure I got it back, though, and today it sits rather uneasily between the spines of the other works in this series. For a Most Treasured book, it’s very well-thumbed. The spine has a few cracks in it and the whole thing looks a little... well, grubby.

This is appropriate, as many of Roald Dahl’s collected short stories have a distinctly nasty, penny dreadful atmosphere to them. They’re like a shameful yellowed paperback you might find hiding its face in a charity shop, or a rude postcard pinned to a garage wall that takes its joke a little too far.

And yet, they’re beautifully written; although many of these stories were originally published in the United States and feature American characters, they are distinctly British in tone, penned in the main in the grey years between the end of the war and the swinging sixties. They have a febrile, buttoned-up sexuality to them that must have seemed shocking at the time. Many of the stories were dramatised in Tales of the Unexpected, a fondly-regarded TV anthology series which Dahl himself presented (although most viewers will be quicker to recall the theme tune and the flame-grilled nuddy dancer in the title sequence).

These stories came long before Dahl created the children’s books for which he is best remembered. But – and here’s the real sting in the tale – they share a very similar tone to novels such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the BFG; a closely-related sense of malice and glee, of sinister things lurking behind pleasant facades.

But what truly sets these tales apart are the twist endings, short sharp shocks that sometimes punished the wicked, but just as often bestowed unjust cruelties on the innocent.

This book collects five volumes of Dahl’s short story collections – Kiss Kiss, Over To You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. Although Over To You features Dahl’s fiction set in the Second World War, just about everything else sees the writer in nasty mode. And you know what? That’s the way I like him.

There are too many stories here to review in any great detail, but the best of them are classics. First of all, there are fine “shock” stories that would become Dahl’s stock-in-trade before he began writing for young ‘uns – thrill machines with nothing more on their mind than to cause goosepimples. “William and Mary” sees an apparently doting wife having her husband’s brain installed in an experimental tank full of liquid after he contracts a fatal illness, with one single eye allowing him to see how the lady’s life flourishes without him. Irvine Welsh lifted this entire idea lock, stock and barrel for a far less subtle tale in The Acid House, but I liked the implicit cruelty in this one a little better.

Then there’s “Royal Jelly”, probably the one most people remember from the TV series, in which a beekeeper decides to feed his newborn child some of the stuff in the title - with interezzzzzting results.

“Mrs Bixby And The Colonel’s Coat” puts us in one of Dahl’s favourite arenas – that of cheating spouses, and revenges gained or scores settled thereafter. The twist in that one is priceless. But in “The Great Switcheroo”, a tale of bed-trickery involving two randy husbands who agree to swap wives in the night – supposedly without their partners’ knowledge - the turnaround is a lot more subtle than you might suspect.

“The Visitor” is one of the “Uncle Oswald” stories, picaresque tales involving the bequeathed diaries of a famous philanderer. It features another belting climax when our priapic hero is driven almost insane with lust by the veiled daughter of a kindly Egyptian man who puts him up after his car breaks down in the desert. When it arrives, the twist feels like a mixture of one of the dirtier urban myths and one of the tales of Sheherazade.

But perhaps the best of these foetid tales of cheating and seduction is “Nunc Dimitis”, where a jealous husband discovers a dirty secret about the composition of a portrait of his wife – and springs a nasty surprise at a dinner party.

Another favourite topic of Dahl’s is stingy, socially fastidious, greedy middle class men given a royal come-uppance. “Parson’s Pleasure” is a fine example, in which a vicar collecting for a jumble sale is astonished to discover an original Chippendale piece of furniture, hiding in the house of some oblivious country bumpkins. He tries his best to weasel the near-priceless piece away from the owners, and his deception goes well. Until....

And finally, there’s “Dip In The Pool”, where a crafty passenger on a cruise liner seems to hit upon a foolproof plan to cheat his way into scooping a huge lottery prize. Not completely foolproof, as it turns out.

Many people are blissfully unaware that dear old Uncle Roald flew a Hurricane for the RAF during the Second World War in Greece and Syria. He lost a lot of friends, almost certainly killed several Germans in aerial dogfights and finally sustained horrible injuries in the crash that ended his involvement in the theatre. Dahl’s wartime experiences, both on and off the ground, are distilled into the tales of Over To You. The best of these, “Death of an Old Man”, takes on the tones of a nightmare once the initial exhilaration of taking on an enemy fighter plane in an air duel wears off.

In a similar vein, many of the stories spiral into outright horror. “The Landlady” is a subtle exercise in menace, and in its strange guest-house owner with an unusual hobby we might discern something of Norman Bates yet-to-be. “Pig” is a gruesome look at animal rights and battery farm production, and in its demented faux-American delivery there’s the tone of a Warner Brothers cartoon gone wrong.

These and other echoes of Dahl’s children’s stories are very strong – most notably in “The Champion of the World”, a story about some poachers attempting to bag as many pheasants as they can using a unique method. Of course, this story – and its title – would be completely retooled as a much more famous novel for children.

In “The Wish”, there’s a story of a child’s harmless game going extremely wrong, a scene which could have appeared in Matilda. And in the “Claud’s Dog” suite - several stories about a grubby bloke going about his grubby business in the countryside (maggot farming and all) - I hope I’m not stretching things by saying I detected a hint of The Twits.

Though it hardly seems an appropriate description for work which celebrates the malicious, the unfair and the downright sadistic, this is a wonderful book that you’ll dip into again and again. And although my copy has seen better days, and it bears the greasy fingerprints of other lovers of mischief, in future it is staying on my shelf... And, on the odd nasty night, beside my bed.  

1 comment:

  1. What a joy it was when, around thirteen years old, I discovered that my favourite writer had a seemingly endless series of adult stories to revel in.