‘Roald Dahl is one of the world’s most popular writers, equally at home writing for both children and adults. In this, the second of two volumes collecting all his published adult short stories in chronological order, we experience Dahl’s dark and powerful imagination in full flight in twenty-eight stories written between 1954 and 1988 (including eight tales which are not available in any other printed edition).
Here, in ‘Parson’s Pleasure’, a piece of furniture is the subject of a deceitful bargain; in ‘William and Mary’, a wife revenges herself on her dead husband; and in ‘Royal Jelly’ some new parents find an unusual and unsettling way to give their newborn its start in life.
Whether you’re young or old, once you’ve stepped into the brilliant, troubling world of Roald Dahl, you’ll never be the same again.’
If the first volume of Dahl’s short stories showed him settling into his craft, by this issue he had well and truly hit his stride. This second volume of Dahl’s adult short stories featured some of Dahl’s longer tales, including the brilliant story of one mans mission to beat the casinos, ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’. But whether Dahl is writing tales based on his experiences in the RAF or creating intense stories full of mysteries and terrible deeds of seemingly ordinary folk he is clearly in his element.
Since I’ve already spoken about how much I adored Dahl’s writing style in my review for ‘Volume One‘ I thought I’d pick out a few of my favourite stories from this particular compilation.
‘William and Mary’ is forever going to be one of my favourites of any short story I’ve ever read. Focusing on Mary, a widow who only recently lost her overbearing and controlling husband who, with the aid of an exceptionally experimental medical and scientific procedure, now has to deal with her husband surviving on as a disembodied brain complete with a single eye. This story is a rare example of Dahl dipping into the science fiction genre and yet he does it with the ease of a true writer. The character of Mary inspires a fantastic amount of interest in the reader as she not only chooses to take control of her life but even shows a foreboding and perhaps malicious interest in the future of her late husbands brain. Dahl’s greatest skill is to conjure up a completely unique and original storyline from the most normal of characters. Some people would be hard pressed to write an interesting tale surrounding a widow in her fifties and yet Dahl does weaves the tale with such ease that the reader never doubts for a second that in some corner of the country this could indeed be happening.
‘Vengeance is Mine inc.’ is also going to easily make my top 10 short stories list. The concept of two men with an entrepreneurial spirit and the guts to create a good business is always a good start, but when these two men decide to get rich by extracting revenge on petty columnists on behalf of their rich victims things start to get interesting very quickly. I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the mental image of some gossip columnist getting punched in the face on the street after a brave man in the brilliant guise of a runaway Russian had him called down from the comfort of his mens club. It’s a brilliant concept and, to be honest, I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it sooner. That’s the brilliance of Dahl, he takes simple stories no one else would think of in a thousand years and creates pure literary gold. Other stories with similar ingenious plots are ‘The Butler’ and ‘The Umbrella Man’.
‘The Visitor’ and ‘Bitch’ both star the same principle character, Oswald Cornelius, a scandalous, sex obsessed rascal who flits from country to country and woman to woman whenever the muse takes him. The stories are written as though they come from his diary and are therefore written as boasts of his great adventures. But Oswald is not a hero and Dahl makes sure that even when writing his own tales he does not always get a happy ending. There is just the right amount of justice when Oswald’s plans to seduce either the wife or daughter of his gracious host going awry with the suggestion that his perfect night may have just been with a second daughter who the “hero” finds out, to his utmost horror, is a leper. Even in ‘Bitch’ Oswald is thwarted in his attempt to monetise and command a potent perfume that would reduce any man back to his basest and most animal mating instincts with the death of the genius behind the perfume, securing the loss of the formula, and the complete failure of Oswald to use the last of the creation to sabotage his least favourite American politician. Oswald is a delightful character but I can’t help but think if he was real he would be an incredibly unlikeable rogue, which makes him all the more interesting.
I have to say that as Roald Dahl neared the end of his short story career he seemed to have soften up a large amount. His stories endings stopped being unimaginable and somewhat cruel yet lifelike twists that left the reader shocked but immensely satisfied and started being righteous happy endings tied in a neat little bow. Personally, I adored ‘The Princess and the Poacher’ and ‘Princess Mammalia’ which were Dahl’s brilliant dips into the fairytale genre. Especially the latter, which was almost Grimm-esque in Dahl’s dark but just ending.
I absolutely adored these stories and I know that I will thoroughly enjoy reading them time and time again in the future. Dahl is without doubt one of the most talented writers whose work I’ve ever had the privilege to sample and has certainly taken his place as one of my absolute favourites.