The Magazine

Mister Macabre

The storyteller with a twist, or two.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Frequently, his characters contrive get-rich-quick schemes, like the geeky inventor of "The Great Automatic Grammatizator," who builds a computer that will gush out instant stories and novels by the dozen and soon drives all the mediocre writers out of business. Or Mr. Botibol who, in one story, imagines that he's Brahms and Beethoven, and in a later one tries to stop the liner he's on in mid-ocean so as to slow the day's sail down and win the captain's betting pool. He jumps overboard, but no one notices. The ship sails on.

So you see, Doc, their little schemes and petty villainies are often thwarted, sometimes hilariously so. Like the two men who poach pheasants by doping them with sleeping powders in raisins, only to have the birds wake up as they're being delivered to the poachers (in a baby carriage!) and fly every which way. Or the vandal housebreaker who accidentally swallows a huge diamond hidden in an ice tray and is found out when its sharp end lodges in his small intestine and has to be removed surgically. Or the wine connoisseur who boasts that he can identify any great wine by taste but is caught cheating when the maid brings him the glasses he's left in the room where the rare Médoc has been breathing.

Yes, I'd say that Dahl's stories are often sadistic. As when a deluded wife fancies that a beautiful stray cat who likes her piano-playing is Franz Liszt reincarnated. When she goes to the kitchen to cook the cat a good meal, her exasperated husband throws the cat into a bonfire in the back yard. Sadistic, I'd say, but not nihilistic. There is often a sort of rough justice. Very rough.

You're looking at your watch. I get it. I don't want to waste your time. What's that? Well, yes, that's an interesting "parting shot," as you call it. You say you don't have to hate sex to like Hamlet, or be a regicide or madly ambitious to admit a grudging admiration for Macbeth, or a jealous husband to see where Othello goes terribly wrong.

Good point! And your diagnosis? I see, Doc: I am a "literary hypochondriac," you say. Interesting term. Did you invent it on the spur of the moment?

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.