The Magazine

Valley of the Dahls

The misanthropic stories of Roald the Rotten

Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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At thirteen, Dahl entered Repton, a public school in Derbyshire. In his memoir Boy (1984), Dahl depicts Repton as a gruesome institution where younger students were routinely terrorized by their older classmates and lived in daily fear of the headmaster's cane. Boy drew protests from other Repton alumni, who insisted that Dahl had blackened the school's atmosphere and wildly overplayed the fervor of its disciplinary methods. To be sure Boy, like Dahl's other autobio-graphical writings, offers a brisk mix of fact, fiction, and comic exaggeration. Still, it's obvious that Dahl, like George Orwell, based his pessimistic assessment of human nature at least partly on searingly bad experiences in an English boarding school. Dahl's stories repeatedly depict psychological brutality breaking out in seemingly civilized surroundings. And whether writing for children or adults, Dahl frequently conveys the sense that human life amounts to little more than an endless scrap for domination.

Think of the fabulously harrowing aunts in James and the Giant Peach. Or consider "Galloping Foxley," included in Skin. The story's narrator, a grown man, can't forget the demeaning torment that Foxley, his more powerful schoolmate, delighted in doling out. The narrator tended Foxley's shoes, "rubbing the leather with a bone for fifteen minutes each day to make it shine." He was effectively Foxley's slave, and recalls the older boy "smashing away at me with his long, thin, white stick, slowly, scientifically, skillfully, legally, and with apparent relish, and I would bleed."

After leaving Repton, Dahl found enjoyable work as a representative for Shell Oil in what is now Tanzania. After enlisting in the RAF, Dahl saw serious action in northern Africa and the Mediterranean; in 1942, following his war injuries, he was sent to serve as assistant air attache in Washington. In his 1994 biography, Roald Dahl, Jeremy Treglown notes that Dahl quickly proved popular in Washington, for "six-foot-six inch, handsome, articulate, battle-hardened heroes were rare at that time in the United States, which had only recently entered the war." He dined with the Roosevelts and played poker with Harry Truman.

In the early 1950s Dahl moved to New York, where his social circle grew to encompass writers, actors, and entertainers, among them Patricia Neal, whose film credits already included co-starring roles with John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Dahl and Neal were married in 1953, just before Dahl's Someone Like You appeared to much critical and popular success. Most of the stories Dahl published throughout the 1950s were, as critics noted, like very clever jokes. They often relied on readily recognizable comic types: dotty eggheads, straying husbands, and bossy wives. But they also featured stark conflict, shock endings, and the sheer pleasure of taut suspense. Not surprisingly, several of Dahl's early stories were adapted for the popular television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

One of these, "Lamb to the Slaughter," appears in Skin. In this piece a jilted wife abruptly clubs her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and then conceals the evidence in a particularly inspired way. In fact, "Lamb to the Slaughter" features what crime writer Julian Symons once described as "the literally perfect disposal of a murder weapon."

Dahl's first stories announce his belief that (as he told one interviewer) "people have far fewer nice characteristics than nasty ones . . . and they pretend to have far fewer nasty than nice ones." In "My Lady Love, My Dove," a snobbish woman plants a microphone in the bedroom of her house-guest and makes no apologies for her snooping. "I'm a nasty person," she asserts. In "Nunc Dimittis," a presumably refined and cultured man, convinced that he's been insulted, seeks to humiliate his enemy in public, for "killing," he decides, "was too good for this woman." Thus, at a very proper dinner party, he displays a full-length portrait of his foe sporting nothing but her girdle and a brassiere "as skillfully and scientifically rigged as the supporting cables of a suspension bridge."

The Umbrella Man reprints several of Dahl's best stories from the 1950s. In "The Landlady," a naive lodger enters a boarding house run by a cordial matron who also happens to be a skilled taxidermist, and who -- the story implies -- enjoys nothing more than stuffing select patrons after serving them poisoned tea. In "The Man From the South," a mysterious, white-suited man makes a bizarre bet with a young American sailor. The man wagers that the sailor's cigarette lighter will not ignite ten times in a row. He puts up his Cadillac -- and demands the reluctant sailor's little finger in return.