“Mister Macabre”

This review was written by Edwin M. Yoder and printed in the January 22, 2007 issue of The Weekly Standard.

Morning, Doc. Thanks for seeing me on short notice. I have a problem. I can’t tell whether it’s pathological. That’s where you come in.

You know me to be sane, right? I can see you nodding; thanks. I don’t torture animals or people. I hate cruelty and I’m certainly no sadist. And I’m not one of those pious imbeciles, either, who believe they’re wholly free of the dark impulses that go with our human condition. You’re nodding yes, again. I can hear you asking: So, what’s the problem?

The problem is Roald Dahl, the man and his stories. Don’t laugh, this is serious. And strange. Who is he? A Briton of the World War II generation, born in England of Norwegian parents, died 16 years ago. An RAF pilot in the war, when he began writing about his aviation adventures. Later a widely published and anthologized short-story writer and, of all things, a successful writer of children’s stories. Children’s stories, if you can believe it! That’s part of the strangeness.

Okay, you wish I’d get to the point. I don’t understand my embarrassing reaction to Dahl’s stories, Doc. I read a lot of fiction and have taught it too, even written a bit; but this guy is sui generis–as macabre as Poe, as cruel as Sade, as full of twists as O. Henry, and as artful as Chekhov. If he were clumsy, you’d quit reading in disgust and throw the book across the room. But no–I laugh, Doc, I laugh. Often and aloud. And I can’t get enough of these stories. Please Doc, can you help?

An example? I can give you several–all you want. “Lamb to the Slaughter,” for instance: A woman’s husband, a policeman, comes home one night and announces in a surly voice that he’s leaving her. She begs to fix him a last meal before he leaves. He grumbles but accepts. She fetches a frozen leg of lamb from the basement freezer and, on a sudden impulse, cracks his head with it. Then she cooks it while his colleagues from the PD are swarming over the house searching for the murder weapon, sure that it has to be heavy and metallic.

Later, she invites them to have a bite of dinner. They sit down to eat, still wondering where the weapon is. “It has to be right under our noses,” one says. Hilarious! Then, there’s “William and Mary.” William is an Oxford philosopher, an unpleasant control freak who tyrannizes his wife. He especially won’t let her smoke cigarettes and impounds the grocery money when she breaks the rule. William has his brain and right eye preserved when he dies of cancer. When she goes to see that eye, floating in a basin at the infirmary, she lights up and blows great clouds of smoke right in it. The eye is furious. “I can’t wait to get him home,” she says. A barrel of laughs!

Bettelheim, you say, Bruno Bettelheim? His book The Uses of Enchantment? What about it? You say he insists that fairy tales, even the morbid ones, are healthy for children and that he scolds bowdlerizers for trying to launder the cruelty and morbidity out of them? Are you saying it’s healthy to read about Hansel and Gretel burning the witch in the gingerbread house? Or about the Big Bad Wolf dressing in grandma’s gown and eating Little Red Riding Hood? Or the stepsisters picking on Cinderella and making her clean the fireplace all the time?

You can’t be serious! And yet, I suppose it does explain why Dahl can be also a successful writer of children stories. I shudder to think what they must be like!

And you say there’s often an intimate connection between depression and humor, that humor of the morbid kind is a “defense” against darkness? And that reading such stories is a bit like the old homeopathic medicine: little drops of poison to ward off the Big Blues? Actually, speaking of depressed humorists, you make me think of James Thurber. Some of Thurber’s cartoons, come to consider it, might well be visual Dahl stories. Like “Touché,” for instance, where a fencer has just cut off his fencing partner’s head. And I can’t recall the caption just now, but there’s one in which we see a stuffed woman crouched on the mantel and she’s identified as a man’s first wife. I begin to see your point, Doc. But pardon, I didn’t mean to take over the diagnosis.

What other characteristics are there in Dahl’s stories? You name it, they’re there. The range is vast and the detail is always authentic. This guy knows a lot about everything from surgery to viticulture, from flying to greyhound racing. There is even the occasional touch of magical realism. There’s the RAF pilot who disappears for three days, but is seen at night sleeping in his bed and who turns up, finally, having visited a sort of radiant Valhalla beyond the clouds for downed pilots.

Frequently, his characters contrive get-rich-quick schemes, like the geeky inventor of “The Great Automatic Grammatizator,” who builds a computer that will gush out instant stories and novels by the dozen and soon drives all the mediocre writers out of business. Or Mr. Botibol who, in one story, imagines that he’s Brahms and Beethoven, and in a later one tries to stop the liner he’s on in mid-ocean so as to slow the day’s sail down and win the captain’s betting pool. He jumps overboard, but no one notices. The ship sails on.

So you see, Doc, their little schemes and petty villainies are often thwarted, sometimes hilariously so. Like the two men who poach pheasants by doping them with sleeping powders in raisins, only to have the birds wake up as they’re being delivered to the poachers (in a baby carriage!) and fly every which way. Or the vandal housebreaker who accidentally swallows a huge diamond hidden in an ice tray and is found out when its sharp end lodges in his small intestine and has to be removed surgically. Or the wine connoisseur who boasts that he can identify any great wine by taste but is caught cheating when the maid brings him the glasses he’s left in the room where the rare Médoc has been breathing.

Yes, I’d say that Dahl’s stories are often sadistic. As when a deluded wife fancies that a beautiful stray cat who likes her piano-playing is Franz Liszt reincarnated. When she goes to the kitchen to cook the cat a good meal, her exasperated husband throws the cat into a bonfire in the back yard. Sadistic, I’d say, but not nihilistic. There is often a sort of rough justice. Very rough.

You’re looking at your watch. I get it. I don’t want to waste your time. What’s that? Well, yes, that’s an interesting “parting shot,” as you call it. You say you don’t have to hate sex to like Hamlet, or be a regicide or madly ambitious to admit a grudging admiration for Macbeth, or a jealous husband to see where Othello goes terribly wrong.

Good point! And your diagnosis? I see, Doc: I am a “literary hypochondriac,” you say. Interesting term. Did you invent it on the spur of the moment?