‘The Complete Short Stories: Volume One 1944-1953’ by Roald Dahl

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‘Roald Dahl is one of the most popular writers of the modern age, effortlessly writing for children and adults alike. In this, the first of two volumes collecting all his published adult short stories in chronological order, we see how Dahl began by using his experiences in the war to write fiction but quickly turned to his powerful and dark imagination to pen some of the most unsettling tales ever written.
In twenty-seven disquieting stories, written between 1944 and 1953, we encounter such classics as ‘Man from the South’, featuring a wager with appalling consequences; ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, in which a wife murders her husband and has a novel idea for throwing the police off the scent; and ‘The Sound Machine’, in which the horrific truth about plants is revealed.
Enter the sinister, twisted world of Roald Dahl: whether you’re young or old, you’ll never want to leave.’

Roald Dahl is probably best known to most people as the children’s author behind such classics as ‘The BFG’, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, ‘The Twits’ and Matilda’. His stories are well known for being funny, odd but intrinsically magical.

But Dahl’s adult short stories that the well known TV show ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ was based on seem to be from a completely different author. They share the humour that Dahl’s other works are infused with but often have incredibly dark elements that spring from strange plot twists. Dahl’s adult fiction is almost Gaiman-like in its frequent elements of the morbid yet fantastic. And yet, there is something so inherently Dahl in each story, a dark reality that clouds each tale. There is no doubt that Dahl’s depiction of the world is cynical but that makes it all the more natural. Of course there are murderers like the wife in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ that hoodwink the police and get away with their crime and yet the scenario is so incredible that you can’t help but be impressed with her ingenuity.

There are rarely heroes in Dahl’s adult tales, and even those who we might consider to be the “good guy” rarely meet a good end. For example, in ‘Claud’s Dog: Mr Feasey’ the reader probably roots for Claud and the narrator to get their winnings so that Claud can provide for his girlfriend when they get married. And yet, when the men are cheated by the bookmakers you feel disappointed but ultimately it is not a bad ending because there is a sense of justice in the men not profiting by their cheating ways.

This volume’s introduction is written by Charlie Higson, who brands the stories as “some of the most unsettling tales ever written”. Now, in fairness, some of the tales do have an unpleasant edge. No one likes the idea of a cat being thrown in a bonfire, let alone a cat who’s actually the reincarnated Franz Liszt. And yet, I would say that these stories are not quite the most unsettling I’ve ever read, often the twists are shocking but none of the stories made me shudder, or want to sleep with the light on. They’re stunning works of fiction but I’d have to argue that if you want something that will unsettle you you’re better off reading Poe or Lovecraft.

That being said, if you read Dahl’s childrens book and then a few of these tales, I wouldn’t blame you for being reluctant to believe they’re by the same person. But even Dahl’s children’s stories were never entirely without a darker edge; the witches hate children, Matilda’s family and headteacher are brutes and Willy Wonka is far from mentally sound. Dahl was never known for entirely happy, bubbly, feel good stories but that never mattered as his tales were always exciting, creative and entirely enthralling.

5-stars

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