Our next horror master is Roald Dahl (1916-1990), Welsh author and screenwriter. Most people probably know Dahl as the author of such famous children’s books as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. A lot of these people would probably be surprised to learn that Dahl also wrote numerous nasty and exceedingly clever short stories, some of which are famous in their own right.
One might fairly ask, though, whether Dahl should be labeled a horror author. Unlike most of the other authors we’ll be labeling ‘horror masters’, Dahl has very few stories involving unusual phenomena, and literally no ghost stories in his oeuvre. There is an undeniable darkness in most of his stories, though, even those where nothing physically bad happens to any of the characters. Part of the tension in reading his stories, in fact, comes from not knowing how bad things will actually get! You never know with Dahl.
If I were to categorize the primary theme of Dahl’s work, it would be the ingenious depravity of humanity. Almost all of his stories involve people behaving badly, and doing so in exceedingly clever ways. The best analogy I can think of is to imagine Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado written with an even more perverse sense of humor!
Strongly connected to this first theme is Dahl’s pointed critique of ‘high society’. Many of his stories, including a number mentioned below, demonstrate how even the most civilized pursuits can be twisted beyond recognition. Taste, mentioned below, as well as The Butler, make of mockery of wine tasting. His story Skin shows a rather unusual side of the art world.
Beyond his ability to see the worst in people, Dahl’s greatest talent is misdirection. Like a master magician, he sets up situations that aren’t quite what you’re expecting, and he often has you looking one way when he hits you over the head from the other. Not always, mind you: just as with the nastiness of his stories, you’re never quite sure what to expect…
A number of his stories stand out for me, most of which can be found in the compilation The Best of Roald Dahl. A brief, non-spoiler summary of these stories follows:
- Man From the South (1948). I include a link to the complete story, for the penny-pinchers amongst my readers! The titular character notices the pride a young man has in his cigarette lighter’s infallibility, and makes an innocent wager with him: can he make it light ten times in a row? He’ll win a very expensive Cadillac from the man from the south if he can, but if he can’t, he’ll forfeit one of his fingers. This incredibly tense story was made into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in both versions of the series. Quentin Tarantino also did an homage to the tale in his part of the collaborative tale Four Rooms.
- Taste (1951). One of my favorite short stories of all time! The narrator is attending a dinner party in which, year after year, a wine connoisseur successfully guesses the host’s wine. This year, the host is convinced the connoisseur will fail, so the connoisseur makes him a bet: two of his houses, against marriage to the host’s lovely daughter, that he can guess the vintage. The story starts amicably and grows exceedingly tense as it progresses.
- William and Mary (1959). A love story, of sorts. William has apparently died, leaving his wife Mary alone. But is he dead? There’s a jar, and a brain, involved, and I’ll say no more.
- The Way Up to Heaven (1954). Mrs. Foster is desperate to get out on vacation and visit her daughter and grandchildren in Paris, if only her husband will stop dragging his feet and let her go! If that synopsis sounds lame, you don’t know Roald Dahl.
- The Visitor (1965). This lengthy tale is essentially an extended diary entry of one Oswald Cornelius, noted amorous adventurer. It describes one of his bawdy exploits, in particular the last one noted in his journal.
Those are perhaps enough stories to get started with; there are many others worth reading.
Returning to the conspicuous absence of ghost stories in Dahl’s writings, it is worth noting that he explained it himself in a collection of stories selected personally by him, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. The volume was the result of extensive reading and researching Dahl did for a television anthology of spooky tales. The anthology was never made, so Dahl instead collected his favorite tales in print form. In the introduction, he states:
Good ghost stories, like good children’s books, are damnably difficult to write. I am a short story writer myself, and although I have been doing it for forty-five years and have always longed to write just one decent ghost story, I have never succeeded in bringing it off. Heaven knows, I have tried. Once I thought I had done it. It was with a story that is now called The Landlady. But when it was finished and I examined it carefully, I knew it wasn’t good enough. I hadn’t brought it off. I simply hadn’t gotten the secret. So finally I altered the ending and made it into a non-ghost story.
He certainly shouldn’t have felt too bad about it; Roald Dahl has left us a collection of twisted and macabre tales that reveal the wicked side of humanity while laughing at it at the same time.