“Valley of the Dahls”

This review was written by Brian Murray and printed in the January 15, 2001 edition of The Weekly Standard.

Roald Dahl was, by his own admission, a slow and finicky writer who went daily to his desk only to produce two or three stories per year. A large man, loquacious and gruff, he nonetheless favored tight and very tidy prose. He liked to “cut and crystallize” each piece, as he once wrote, until it could be cut and crystallized no more.

Such persistence paid off. Dahl’s literary career, although somewhat slow in starting, prospered for forty years. From the early 1950s to the 1970s, Dahl’s macabre and blackly comic short stories appeared regularly in leading magazines and in such collections as Someone Like You (1954) and Kiss Kiss (1959). And, starting in the 1960s, Dahl found increasing fame as a children’s author with such titles as James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The Twits (1980), and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (1982). Late in life, Dahl liked to describe himself as a modern day pied piper who could “knock at the door of any house where there was a child” and be duly accorded a warm welcome and a cup of tea.

This was no idle boast. At the time of his death, in 1990, Dahl was easily the world’s most successful children’s author. Ten years later, Dahl’s books continue to sell by the millions, and — in Britain, certainly — still tend to finish first whenever pollsters ask kids and adolescents to list their favorite books. Last March the British press widely reported that a “World Books Day” survey had named Dahl “the nation’s all-time favorite author.” Dahl bested not only Austen and Dickens, but J. K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, who took second place.

Thus, although Dahl is gone, the Dahl Industry rolls on. The 1990s brought inventive film adaptations of James and the Giant Peach and Matilda. And “new” books by Dahl continue to appear. Two of these, The Umbrella Man and Skin, collect many of Dahl’s earliest — and best-known — short stories and aim them at a fresh generation of adolescent readers; Skin, indeed, advertises itself “as an introduction for teenagers to the adult writings of one of the greatest storytellers ever.” A third, The Mildenhall Treasure, first ran as a feature story forty-five years ago in the Saturday Evening Post. The Mildenhall Treasure tells the tale of Gordon Butcher, a Suffolk farmer who — while plowing a field — unearths a vast cache of Roman silver, “the greatest treasure ever found in the British Isles.” Butcher, a simple man, earns nothing from his discovery, now housed in the British Museum. (This new edition exists mostly to show off Ralph Steadman’s illustrations.)

During the 1940s, moving awkwardly between fiction and journalism, Dahl focused mainly on his experiences as a Royal Air Force pilot during the Second World War. Dahl had found himself in several dog fights and was seriously injured when he crash-landed his aircraft in the Libyan desert. He suffered spinal injuries, a smashed hip, and a fractured skull. He would later suggest, half-jokingly, that his urge to write had in fact been activated by his wartime smash-up and its accompanying blow to the head. For until then he displayed no literary or intellectual ambitions. Roald Dahl hailed from sturdy, successful Scandinavian stock. His father was a Norwegian shipbroker who immigrated to Wales. Harald Dahl died of pneumonia in 1920 when Roald (the sole boy among several children) was only three. But his estate was large enough to keep his widow and family afloat. Dahl’s mother, Sofie, eventually moved the family to Bexley, an affluent London suburb.

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 autobiographical 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.

Both stories, deftly paced and neatly closed, show once again Dahl’s interest in exposing casual evil lurking beneath a facade of innocence — as well the perversion and greed he found so persistently at work in human nature.

During the 1960s, Dahl’s success, and Neal’s, allowed them to fill a rambling old house in Buckinghamshire — “Gipsy House” as it was famously called — with antiques, paintings, and an impressive collection of fine wine. But the decade also brought trauma and hardship. In 1960, the Dahls’ four-month-old son, Theo, was struck in his pram by a speeding cab. Suffering severe head injuries, the infant developed hydrocephalus and required a valve implantation to drain fluid from his brain. The child endured several operations, as well as discomfort caused by the valve itself.

With the help of an airplane modeler, Stanley Wade, and a neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, Dahl developed a better shunt for relieving symptoms produced by “water on the brain.” The Wade-Dahl-Till valve remains in wide use, and in later years Dahl often called it his most satisfying accomplishment.

In 1962 the Dahls’ eldest child, seven-year-old Olivia, died from measles. Two years later, Patricia Neal suffered several strokes that left her severely impaired, without her memory, and unable to speak or write. Dahl devoted great energy to his wife’s recovery, as Barry Farrell’s bestselling Pat and Roald (1969) revealed. Dahl developed a series of highly demanding therapeutic programs that gradually allowed Neal to resume her acting career.

At this stage Dahl showed his own growing interest in television and film. He contributed to the screenplay of the James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice (1967). He tried unsuccessfully to adapt Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the screen. He also contributed largely unused material to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a hit based on the children’s book by Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, one of the few writers Dahl openly admired. Dahl’s attempts at scriptwriting stemmed directly from the fact that he now found fiction to be both difficult and unprofitable.

A certain creative flagging is already evident in his stories from the late 1950s. Dahl’s characters are less sharply drawn; some of his narratives lack snap. In “Royal Jelly,” for example, an obsessed beekeeper feeds his infant daughter great gobs of a gooey, super-nutritious substance he culls from backyard hives, and — rather too predictably — transforms her into a weird creature as insect-like as himself. In “Pig,” a young man reared as a vegetarian takes a tour of a meat packing plant where he ends up shackled and skinned along with other unsuspecting beasts. The story’s point isn’t clear. Is Dahl ridiculing the naivete of vegetarianism or aiming to make steak-eaters queasy? In any event, the story is marked by an unsettling sadistic glee.

In Dahl’s world, only children merit much sympathy. The adult can be clever, but he’s also envious, self-deluding, and dangerous — especially when his ego is bruised. This is particularly clear in “The Last Act,” one of four stories about sex that first appeared in Playboy. It centers on Anna, a lonely widow who, while on a business trip in Dallas, arranges to meet Conrad, an old flame. Anna wants to reminisce; Conrad wants revenge. He’s still outraged that Anna dropped him some thirty years before, so he gets her drunk and lures her to bed — not for romance but ruthless humiliation. He tortures her with taunts meant to shake her already unsteady psychological state. “The Last Act” is far from amusing, for one gets the sense that Dahl is, at least to some degree, cheering Conrad on.

Dahl and Patricia Neal divorced in 1983, prompting wide attention in the British press. Dahl remarried, but his later years were severely strained by illnesses, including the leukemia that killed him at the age of seventy-four. Dahl’s personal difficulties did little to temper his already rough and volatile personality. During the early 1980s, for example, he expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in a review attacking Israeli military policy in Lebanon. The article — followed by Dahl’s vague apologies — sparked a brief controversy in Britain, where, thanks to his children’s books and years of positive publicity, Dahl was widely regarded with affection. Many readers knew him only as an eccentric but disciplined craftsman. But Dahl had long liked to shock, and many of his enemies — and friends — knew well the nasty side of a man they sometimes called “Roald the Rotten.”

In a perceptive review, the British writer Claire Tomalin noted that Dahl’s children’s books are “funny and ingenious,” and young readers are bound to respond to “the sheer brio” of their narratives. But these works also show a “binary view of the universe,” where “things and people are either wholly good or bad” or “delicious or disgusting.” And this view is even more apparent in his writings for adults — which means that the recent trend of marketing Dahl’s “adult” works to younger readers in such collections as Skin and The Umbrella Man makes sense, for he remained, even in his seventies, something of an adolescent himself.

Still, the idea does give one pause, and prompts the consideration of other possibilities — Ambrose Bierce for Boys and Girls, perhaps. But then, we do live in coarse and cynical times, as every kid already knows, and next to South Park, say, or the rap star Eminem’s latest CD, Roald the Rotten looks positively tame.