Dahl’s adult stories are not as famous as his children’s books. Taken as a whole, The Collected Stories is as impressive as Saki’s Complete Works if you ask me.
Many of these stories, for me, were the antidote to reality. His characters, their perpetually gleaming eyes, their moist lips, constantly wringing their hands and exclaiming, even cackling demoniacally, might put one in mind of fantasy villains. But they are ordinary people. In most cases, any supernatural element is secondary to the human element, and occasionally altogether absent.
Evil children, vengeful spinsters, mad husbands, conniving wives, the murderous, the cunning, the smarmy, and the grand in every way – no matter his target, Dahl conceals and reveals with equal facility. His sly exuberance is always on display when it comes to the surprise endings. And there are plenty of those to go around.
These are not fairy tales. ‘Parable’ and ‘fable’ might be words which describe the technique he employs here and there but any of his writerly choices are cast in a modern light. Combinations of outrageous description and stellar plots characterize the majority of the tales. Characters who transform into the things they are consumed by reminded me of The Witches and film adaptations of his children’s books.
His sparse, well-chosen, eerie details, provide the texture for his storyteller’s art, which flows masterfully. He possesses specialized knowledge when needed, explaining the intricacies of greyhound racing for instance. Grief, vanity, and an enormous range of other human emotions and experiences are packed into this bulky collection. The whole gamut.
A few have the sensibility and charm of Twain, others are Rube Goldberg-level business schemes. Think of Wodehouse’s cat-ray factory system: (Breed cats and rats in large numbers. You feed the cats to the rats and the rats to the cats. Sell the cat skins for profit.)
Detail is paramount to the success of most stories. But the sales pitch is one of the things at which Dahl excels. His characters, when they’re not selling a product, are peddling an idea.
Figurative language often explicates the position and emotions of the characters and the reader must use their imagination to conceptualize the story’s metaphorical and allegorical significance. Figurative language is just fun too, when used well. Other times it is all too clear what he is getting at and subtlety was not the aim. Nonetheless, he is always extraordinarily vivid.
The collection begins with 10 stories about pilots. The author was a pilot himself, and he presents an intimate examination of many transcendent moments, both real and imagined. They deal with man versus nature, the horrors of war, empathy, tragedy, bomber pilots put into harrowing situations, the veteran’s damaged psyche and even a dreamlike adventure. Lots of death and air battles provide a backdrop of action, desperation, helplessness. Many take place in exotic locales, like Cairo, Greece, and France. The first 140 pages should be enough to draw any serious reader in to the strange world Dahl crafts so meticulously. It will also turn away any people who assume he can only write stuff for children. These are not the most demanding stories you will find, but they are not for youngsters. Actually, the further along you get in the collection, the more adult they get, including a handful of ones sold to Playboy and other magazines, which really ratchet up the sex and grotesquerie.
The second set of stories deal with the art world, of which Dahl was also a part in his time. Eccentric rich people are easy to poke fun at, and he does it very well. “Nunc Dimittis” reveals what Dahl can do with the revenge plot. “The Sound Machine” could have been written by H. G. Wells. When Dahl decides to include science, he is on point. “Mr. Botibol” presents a recurring character at his most self-delusional. It is a charming and heartwarming story. One of the most innocent.
“Vengeance is Mine, Inc.” is the first comedy of the business acumen variety in the book. A harebrained scheme turns out miraculously well, while capturing the spirit of industry which so easily consumes and encapsulates a whole history of human affairs.
He lapses into Wodehousian aplomb, relishing insane levels of detail in one of the masterpieces of the collection, called “Taste.” Other standouts include “The Ratcatcher, Mr. Hoddy, Madame Rosette, Galloping Foxley, William and Mary, Georgy Porgy, Pig, The Landlady, The Visitor, & The Last Act.”
There is just so much variety here. He might discuss bullying, innocence, naiveté, more satires of the rich and fabulous of English and American society, orphan life, pheasant hunting, furniture dealing, being swallowed whole…
The one called “Bitch” features a recurring character, Oswald, whose fictitious memoirs provide a metafictional element. The idea is very similar to Perfume, but the approach and climax is quite unexpected.
His worst story is on the subject of cow-birthing. Occasionally his far-fetched ideas are simply absurd, without being clever enough to propel the reader’s interest. But the vast majority are incredibly satisfying to read.
Perhaps my favorite story was “The Visitor”, about Oswald’s Casanovan adventure in the desert. It features a picaresque element and a shocking ending. Dahl is so good at lulling you into a false sense of security. Grim visions like these, are almost guaranteed to capture the heart of fans of speculative fiction, even if he doesn’t stray far from Realism. He is not afraid to discomfit the reader. I grew nauseous while reading the prolonged description of brain surgery in “William and Mary.” I could see the procedure happening in excruciating detail in my mind’s eye.
Come to Dahl for the extravagant plots, the weird, ghostly surrealism, the cruelty, horror, violence, subtly telling details. The tenuous and artificial connections between human beings are elegantly presented. His rhythm is like a well-composed bar-room style retelling, but add in the uncanny description, and you have his recipe. Levity, amid squalor, provides profound contrast. Lethargic, indulgent, beatific – he was able to capture it all.
What keeps us sane and makes us go insane? Each slanted and skewed perspective was a joy to uncover.
Dahl’s stories are always fascinating, and this is a must-have jumbo collection.
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