The Delightful And The Dark: Exploring Roald Dahl’s Adult Fiction

September 11, 2018

My first encounter with Dahl was through the short story The Umbrella Man, which was part of the English textbook prescribed in school. Apart from delighting in Dahl’s delicious prose, I also found out about ‘banana splits’ and grew wary and suspicious of men who were “too nice”. (Of course, I began to religiously stare at their footwear from then on!) A little later, I revisited Dahl with the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. I was entranced by the story, wishing for a chocolate factory of my own and wondering if Oompa Loompas existed.

Surprisingly, these events happened when I was about 12 years old. Although I had been raised on a nourishing diet of books, Dahl’s books (accompanied by Quentin Blake’s wispy lanky illustrations) somehow never crawled into my reading lists despite the endearing first brush with his words. Before you huff and puff and wonder what in the world was wrong with me, this situation gave me a unique – and probably rare – opportunity of coming in to contact with Dahl’s adult writing first.

It was with Man From The South that I began my tryst with Dahl. I was drawn into the tale by the opening premise and was soon sitting at the edge of my seat mentally screaming abuses at the twisted old man and his idea of a “bet” while praying and wishing that the boy didn’t lose his left pinkie! Why why – I dug my fist in my mouth when the hotel help brought in a butcher’s knife. This is a trap. Maybe the room does not have enough oxygen for the lighter to fire up – I came up with conspiracy theories. And, by the end, when the travelling companion arrived to fetch the deranged old man, I was exhausted with stress and rushing relief.

Remember those strange implausible stories we sometimes unearth in the margins of the newspaper? Or those bizarre-but-true anecdotes that find their way into a family gathering? I realised that Dahl thrived in these obscure tales that happened in the fringes of our own banal existence. He wrote about seemingly mundane characters who upon a turn of events get twisted and knotted into dark creatures capable of absolutely anything, reminding me so much of the writings of Saki and O. Henry, two other favourite authors I had discovered and relished through my wonderful English textbooks. I was hooked!

Dahl’s first ever full-length novel for adults, published in 1948 in the aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings – Sometime Never– fizzled out, never reaching the status of his subsequent works that endeared him to an audience of all ages. However, his short stories written for adults found patronage in a number of newspapers and magazines from The New Yorker and The Daily Telegraph to Esquire and Playboy. These were later anthologised in titles like Kiss Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, and other collections.

Whatever be the theme of these stories, it is interesting that Dahl rarely indulged in powerful or sensational words for impact. Instead, he relied on the inherent drama of the plot. In a way, we could break most of his stories into the three-act structure – the introduction to the normal setting and characters leading to an unexpected twist which ends in a startling revelation. He then fleshes this structure with a ‘shock and awe’ method in his narrative flow- teasing his audience in stories like The Visitor or using macabre humour with aplomb in tales like Lamb To The Slaughter. At this point, a ‘psychological bargain’ would always ensue between his characters and between the reader and the text. We would start to extrapolate information from his prose, second guess facts or review our opinions about aspects of the plot. This would lead to a tense and torrid journey where, in a matter of a page, he would take us through a gamut of emotions. This was the Dahlian stamp one stumbled upon in every story.

The only departure from this style was when Dahl channelised his own experience as a pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War (until he crashed in the Libyan desert) into “ten terrifying tales” in Over To You. Although spattered with grotesque characters and chilling war-time action, this collection of stories is extremely unique as they are reflective in nature and don’t carry his usual markings.

Other than this anthology, Dahl, with mischievous glee, explored an aberrant society and its wicked immoral ways with the same love he showed writing about Fantastic Mr Fox or James And The Giant Peach. Perhaps this taste for absurdity, vice and deviancy is clearly visible in his Revolting Rhymes – which I view as a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood – where Cindy (as Cinderella is fondly called) holds the Prince “very tight and pressed herself against his manly chest”, Jack (of beanstalk fame) is beaten up by his mother and the seven dwarves spend their money on the race tracks.

Dahl did not shy away from bold and brazen sexual themes like wife swapping and attempted rape in his book Switch Bitch. One of his well-known characters is the charming and promiscuous “greatest fornicator of his time” Uncle Oswald who, with his spider silk tie and Chinese porcelain collection, captures scorpions and women’s hearts with the same ease. Dahl also wrote a full-length novel on this beloved womaniser and his (mis)adventures.

Horror was yet another of Dahl’s favourite tropes, seen primarily in the stories in Kiss Kiss. The charm of Dahl’s darker tales is that the horror is always implied and unexpected but never directly stated, leading the reader to infer worst-case scenarios. For instance, The Landlady seems to be a taxidermist who murders her guests and possibly stuffs them up. In The Way Up to Heaven, the meek and flustered Mrs Foster is hinted to have trapped her husband in an elevator for six weeks, resulting in his death. This subtle art of suggestion is one of the major draws towards Dahl’s writing as the reader feels as much a part of the storyteller’s world as the characters. What the reader believes might have happened is what the story becomes.

Dahl was a master storyteller who focused on his narration more than anything else, leading us into a vibrant evocative world of strange characters and moral dilemmas. His stories continue to enthral the newer audience and, to the loyalists, they still remain relevant, fresh and make for a delightful reread. The one common thread between what he wrote for kids and adults is his imagination that never played within any limits. He always had the key to the chocolate factory, a giant’s lair or into the caves of the gnarling beasts that reside within our hearts and heads.

Sandhya believes in changing the way the world works, one story at a time. She has been an illustration columnist with the Sri Lankan based Lanka Monthly Digest, a features columnist with Living Magazine, an Indian Cinema critic for About.com, a food critic for Burrp.com and published in The Hindu, Deccan Chronicle, and online blogs of Roam Coliving, Storytrails, etc. Currently, she spends her days creating engaging content for QLC.io and moonlights writing fiction. Find out more about her on her website.

You can read her articles, here.