If you want to understand the astonishing darkness at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults, you would do well to look at his World War II service–not his well-documented role as an RAF pilot in the early days of the conflict but rather his less-heralded posting as an assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington. It was here, far away from enemy fire, that the cynical worldview that informs Dahl’s adult fiction just might have been born. Serving alongside future advertising mogul David Ogilvy, Horatio Hornblower author C.S. Forester and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Dahl found himself plunged into the sophisticated network of espionage, propaganda, blackmail and sexual intrigue the British used against their American allies to insure they stayed the course in the great struggle against fascism. The lesson was simple–even the best of friends were entitled to lie and cheat if the stakes were high enough.
The budding writer seems to have taken this lesson to heart, because it is difficult to think of another bestselling author who presents a more comprehensively pessimistic view of humanity than the one on display in these fifty-two tales of humiliation, betrayal and revenge. Of course, readers of Dahl’s children’s books will have caught plenty of glimpses of this darkness. For example, there is that sublimely subversive moment in The Witches when the narrator suggests that “your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment” might be a grotesque, child-slaughtering witch in disguise. But in the children’s books this cynicism is always tempered by the presence of a wise grandparent, kindly giant or sly fox. No such relief is on offer in Dahl’s Collected Stories. Readers who like to take their humor black, without a sprinkle of diluting sweetness, will consume this book with immense satisfaction.
Due to its strict chronological arrangement, the collection opens with ten stories inspired by Dahl’s RAF piloting days, written either during or directly after the war. These are by far the book’s weakest entries, their pathos and propaganda only partially concealed by the tough-guy prose that often reads like it won honorable mention in a Hemingway imitation contest. Here is a brave young pilot’s reaction to being ordered out on a dangerous mission in “Death of an Old Old Man”: “The others were all sitting around eating their pudding; mine was still on my plate in front of me, and I couldn’t take another mouthful. But it was fine when I tightened my jaw muscles and said ‘Thank God for that. I’m tired of sitting around here picking my nose.’ It was certainly fine when I said that.” Pudding, indeed.
Dahl finally hits his stride with “Nunc Dimittis,” written in 1947 and marking the opening of the thirteen-year period that was to prove the most productive of his adult-fiction career. (The story’s title comes from the Book of Luke and basically means “I can go now, I have accomplished my life’s mission.”) In it, an amoral art collector takes revenge on the woman who jilted him by carefully orchestrating her humiliation at a posh dinner party, only to have her strike back with an even more decisive reprisal. This dark, perfectly balanced tale provides the template for much of what is to come. In Dahl’s stories, the core family values are not respect and love but torment and retribution. Intimacy doesn’t just breed contempt; it breeds contempt in action. This is particularly true when the topic is marriage. In the justly famous “William and Mary,” a woman suffers her husband’s petty tyranny for years, only to get her chance for payback when he arranges for his brain to be posthumously placed in a state of suspended animation. In “The Way Up to Heaven,” another downtrodden wife takes her revenge when her torturer/spouse gets stuck in an elevator in their six-story Manhattan mansion. In the deliriously funny “Neck,” a cuckolded husband named Sir Basil Turton is handed the opportunity to get even with his gold-digging, unfaithful wife after her head becomes stuck in one of their Henry Moore sculptures while she is frolicking with a lover. The story’s subtly wicked climax comes when the narrator watches Sir Basil’s butler, Jelks, who loathes Lady Turton for betraying his beloved master, arrive with two tools, one that will cleanly extract her, the other that will cause damage to more than just the sculpture: