Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected

17 Oct

Nowadays everybody knows who Roald Dahl is – one of the most popular children’s writers the world has ever known – but there is also a generation who first became aware of him sitting in his cardigan introducing the TV series Tales of the Unexpected. For a while there were two Roald Dahls in people’s consciousness. One – the Tales of the Unexpected Dahl – who wrote slightly sinister, blackly humorous adult stories with a sting in the tail. The other – the Willy Wonka Dahl – who wrote slightly sinister, blackly humorous children’s stories illustrated by Quentin Blake. And back in 1979 the TV Dahl, the Tales of the Unexpected Dahl, took over for a while. After all, he had yet to write many of his most popular kids’ books, like The Twits, The BFG, Matilda and The Witches. But there is a third Roald Dahl, and that is the one to be found in the pages of his short stories – quite simply the master of the short-story form – because there is so much more to his tales than ‘the unexpected’, a label that has perhaps been too often applied to his adult work and which gives too narrow a view of its appeal. If every story consisted of nothing more than a twist we would read them once, perhaps skipping through to the big reveal, and then forget all about them. But you never forget a Dahl short story. He starts with ones based on his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Second World War and ends with ones of country life. In between there is horror, comedy, science fiction, satire and sex. Yes, many of them do end with a final drop of acid, but the pleasure goes far beyond the punchline.

Dahl’s introduction to the very first Tales of the Unexpected is, like his stories, instantly captivating, short, sharp, dry and to the point, and it gives an excellent insight into his approach to writing: “When I’m writing a short story I’m haunted by the thought that I’ve got to hold the reader’s attention for literally every second, otherwise I’m dead.” That is a sentence that should be carved into the forehead of anybody starting out as a writer. In fact it should be carved into the foreheads of many established literary novelists and critics who believe it is the job of the reader, not the writer, to make the effort in a story. Each of his stories draws you in and plays with you, even though, on the surface, nothing much seems to be happening. They are written in a deceptively straightforward style. They may be about warfare and madness, of cows suckling snakes, of husbands contemplating killing their wives, and wives calmly murdering their husbands, of bullying, revenge and mutilation – indeed, many of them verge on horror – but the writing never strays into overblown histrionics and Dahl avoids any Gothic flourishes. There are no thunderstorms and old dark houses. The stories mostly play out in sunlight. But it is a pitiless bright light that exposes everything it touches. Dahl’s style is always understated and matter-of-fact, which is what gives it its cold, hard kick. It is the epitome of the British stiff upper lip: a calm, polite exterior that thinly masks the seething turmoil and suppressed violence underneath.

No matter how normal things might appear on the surface, we somehow know that it’s not going to end well. Dahl will shine his light on to the secrets and lies and pathetic aspirations of his perfectly drawn and desperate characters. They are brutal, his short stories, and yet you finish reading each one with a smile, or maybe even a hollow laugh, certainly a shiver of gratification, because the conclusion always seems so right. Justice has been served. It is not a civilized Christian justice at work, though. It is something older and darker, the same justice that runs through Dahl’s children’s books. It is the child-torturing justice of Willy Wonka, or the aunt-crushing justice of James and the Giant Peach. What is extraordinary is just how polished the early short stories are, despite the fact that Dahl had shown no real literary skills at school and no real interest in writing. You might expect to find a writer feeling his way, grasping for his themes and even experimenting with his style, but no, right from the off the writing is amazingly assured. Again, in his introduction to Tales of the Unexpected from 1979, Dahl gives an insight into the care he took over his stories: “The one you’re going to see now is the first of a series based on stories that have taken me thirty-five years to write. I find them difficult to do well so I work slowly, about two a year.”

In ‘Lucky Break’ Dahl tells how it all came about when he was approached by the writer C. S. Forester – famous for his Hornblower adventure novels – in Washington during the war. Dahl was working as a British cultural attaché, having been wounded in Africa, and Forester needed material for stories to publish in American magazines. Too old to fight, he was, instead, a propagandist and was writing pieces sympathetic to the British to make sure we received as much American support as possible. He asked Dahl to jot down some notes for him about his experiences of being shot down over Libya. Dahl duly obliged, but when he got Dahl’s notes Forester wrote back to him, “You were meant to give me notes. I’m bowled over. Your piece is marvellous. It is the work of a gifted writer. I didn’t touch a word of it.” The piece was duly published under Dahl’s name and he never looked back. Overnight he had become a writer. (That story, later rewritten, appears as ‘A Piece of Cake’.) When asking for notes, Forester gave Dahl a piece of advice that really stuck with him: “Let me have plenty of detail. That’s what counts in our business, tiny little details, like you had a broken shoelace on your left shoe, or a fly settled on the rim of your glass at lunch…”

That attention to detail is evident in all Dahl’s stories, and it’s what makes them so powerful. It is the little things that convince the reader that Dahl had to be there to know all this. The early flying stories are full of such details – local Greek peasants hiding a makeshift runway with branches, the particular smell of Cairo, the intense brief dog-fight in ‘Death of an Old Old Man’ that took “perhaps as long as it would take you to light a cigarette.” And the small scale – the fly on the rim of the glass – keeps cropping up, like the description of the boy in ‘The Wish’ picking at a scab on his knee. Working in miniature like this, Dahl manages to cram whole lives into his stories. In lesser hands each one might have been a full-length novel, but Dahl has boiled them down to their essence. If you are wondering where to start, I would turn to either ‘Man from the South’ or ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’. They are quintessential Dahl short stories and probably the best known. One makes you ask how much you would be prepared to gamble to get what you wanted, and the other hangs on the thought we’ve all had when taking a joint of meat from the freezer: “You could do a lot of damage with this.” Having read these two, you’ll want to go right back to page one and read the rest of the stories from the beginning. And you won’t want to stop until you get to the end, where you will find ‘Claud’s Dog’, four tales of the countryside. This is not the cosy, sentimental countryside of James Herriot, however. It is an alarming place full of horrible things hidden in the hayricks, maggot farms and a ghastly ratcatcher who has stepped straight out of a horror film. Writing of these stories in 1989, Dahl said that “re-reading them again now fills me with acute nostalgia and with vivid memories of those sweet days many years ago.” Which only goes to show that Dahl’s idea of sweet nostalgia is perhaps different from the rest of ours, and is probably why his stories are still so compelling today.

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