“Black Mamba”

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Plot Description

“An African Story” was first published in Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, but it actually has very little to do with that aeronautical theme. The story comes to us in the form of a found manuscript, which the narrator (Dahl) supposedly found in the suitcase of a fellow RAF pilot and friend who died in combat. The manuscript is the dead pilot’s recollection of a story that was told to him by a strange old African man following a forced landing in the Nairobi Highlands. In other words, “An African Story” is about a story about a story.

Spoiler warning! In the found manuscript’s story, the old African man lives in his small shack with his dog, some chickens, a cow, and another man named Judson (evidently some sort of helper). Judson is an irritable fellow, and the sound of the dog licking its paw practically drives him mad. He strikes it with a bamboo rod and breaks its back. The old man puts the dog out of its misery and curses at Judson. Later they begin to have a mysterious problem with the cow: her milk is disappearing during the night. The old man waits up one night and sees something amazing – a deadly poisonous black mamba snake is visiting the cow and drinking milk from her udders! After making sure that this goes on every night, he tells Judson that a small boy is stealing the milk and that Judson should hide beside the cow and catch him in the act. Judson does this and is of course bitten by the snake. He dies there in the meadow, and as the old man watches the snake again begin to suckle at the cow, he says quietly, “You can have his share… Yes, we don’t mind your having his share.”


“Gremlins… A Warning!”

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Information

  • First published:
    • April 11, 1943 issue of This Week Magazine, a nationally-syndicated Sunday magazine supplement for American newspapers
  • Credited to:
    • “Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl, Author of ‘The Gremlins’”
    • “Illustrated by Walt Disney” (in actuality, thought to have been done primarily by Disney animator Bill Justice)
  • Trivia:
    • This “preview” was part of a marketing push by Disney to “whet the public’s appetite” ahead of the planned Gremlins feature film. (Source: Leonard Maltin’s introduction to the 2006 reprint of The Gremlins.)

Fun Stuff


“Twenty Years Younger”

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Plot Description

This is one of my favorite Dahl stories, and the one with (I think) the most potent twist in the tail of all. It’s not until the very last sentence that you understand the true story.

Spoiler warning! Lionel Lampson is a wealthy older gentleman who enjoys fine art and the company of the upper classes. One night he escorts a vulgar woman named Gladys Ponsonby home from a dinner party. Gladys, who is a little drunk, shows off a new portrait of herself that she had commissioned. She tells Lionel a secret – the artist, John Royden, paints all his subjects first in the nude, then in their underwear, and lastly in their clothes. He is shocked and correctly deduces that this is why all the wealthy women in town are rushing to have their portraits painted by him. Gladys then changes the subject and asks Lionel about his relationship with a young beauty named Janet de Pelagia. Lionel is embarrassed until Gladys relates that earlier that afternoon Janet had called him a “crashing bore”. Lionel is outraged and forces Gladys to repeat the entire conversation. He is so upset to hear what Janet thinks about him that he swoons. The next day he wakes and vows revenge. He hits upon the perfect plan and calls up this artist Royden. He tells him that he’d like a picture of Janet, but doesn’t want her to know about it. He pays Royden a handsome amount for his services, and then goes off to Italy for four months. By the time Lionel returns, Royden has finished the painting and it’s the talk of the Royal Academy. Royden delivers it to Lionel, who can’t wait to move on to the second part of his plan. He is an expert cleaner and restorer of paintings, and very carefully he begins to remove the top layer (the clothing) of the painting. By the time he has finished, Janet de Pelagia is standing before him almost life-size in nothing but her underclothes. Lionel then invites Janet and all the top members of society to his home for a dinner party. He keeps the dining room dark and they eat by candlelight. At the very end, he has the maid turn on the light. As he slips from the room, he has the pleasure of seeing on Janet’s face the “surprised, not-quite-understanding look of a person who precisely one second before has been shot dead, right through the heart”. As the outraged guests begin to exclaim over the painting, Lionel gets into his car and speeds off to his other house. Two days later, he receives a phone call from Gladys Ponsonby that kills his good mood. She tells him that all his old friends are against him and have sworn never to speak to him again. Lionel begins to feel quite bad. Then, in the post arrives a letter from Janet forgiving him and saying that she knew it was a joke and that she’s always loved him. She also sends him a jar of his favorite food, caviare. As the story ends, Lionel mentions that he might have eaten too much of it, as he isn’t feeling too well right now. In fact, he says, “come to think of it, I really do feel rather ill all of a sudden.”

(If you don’t get it, she sent him poisoned caviare as her revenge.)


Fun Stuff

  • Advertisement from the March 18, 1950 issue of Australian Women’s Weekly
    Citation: Advertising (1950, March 18). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 18. Retrieved September 30, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46073847


“Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life, at Last I’ve Found Thee”

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Information


Introduction

Roald Dahl introduces this version of the story as if it happened to him!

The other day, when this newspaper invited me to write a short piece on more or less any subject, I declined. I was struggling with a new children’s book, I said, and I find it difficult to switch over from one thing to another. But I had no sooner replaced the receiver when I began to have second thoughts.

The New York Times, I told myself, is read by just about everybody of consequence in the United States, including the President himself. So what a tremendous opportunity this would be to say something of world-shaking importance and to implant the message directly into the minds of powerful men.

But did I have such a message? Nothing in the lead bit trivial would do. Nothing political or witty or smart-aleck. It must, in fact, be something of major benefit to mankind the world over. Something along the lines of Salk and his polio vaccine or Roentgen with his exposed photographic plate or Fleming with that little bacteria-free circle on the watch glass. Something like that.

Well now, I thought. And I went on thinking and thinking and nothing much happened….until suddenly click went a little trigger somewhere inside the head and I cried out, “I’ve got it!” And indeed I had.

For the last 27 ears I have been stewing and brewing about an incident that took place one misty autumn afternoon in a farmyard on the outskirts of the village of Great Missenden, and I have many times wondered where and when I should make the facts known tot he world. This surely was my chance. So here we go. The story is a true one.

Back in 1947 when there was still a postwar shortage of milk in England, we kept a cow in our orchard. The house I was then living in with my mother and my youngest sister is presently owned by Mr. Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister. So this is the orchard. I mention this for a reason. When my story breaks upon the world, thousands of people will flock to Great Missenden to stand and stare at the house where i tall started. And Mr. Wilson, who is no less of an egomaniac than any other politician, will almost certainly think they have come to look at him. He will probably wave to them from an upstairs window and he may even try to make an electioneering speech. If he does, he will be jeered.


Plot Description

This version is slightly different from the later one published in Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life. Claud doesn’t appear at all, for example, and there’s no description of the bull’s, uh, equipment. Dahl also claims that the story is true and happened to him personally in 1947 in Great Missenden.

Spoiler warning! Dahl’s cow started “bulling” so he took her down the road to be serviced by Rummins’s bull. Rummins explains he has a unique way of conducting an official mating that no one else in the world knows. Pointing the cow into the sun, he says, means that a heifer (female) will result, while pointing her away creates a bull (male). The actual reason has something to do with the pull the sun exerts on “female” sperm. After Dahl checks the records to verify this claim, he asks Rummins if it will work with people. “Of course it’ll work with humans,” he said. “…I’ve got four boys of my own, ain’t I?”


Fun Stuff


“Dog Race”

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Information


Plot Description

This is from the “Claud’s Dog” series of stories that were first published in Someone Like You.

Spoiler warning! The narrator Gordon and his friend Claud are exceptionally nervous, because they’re about to pull off the biggest scam of their lives. They’re off to the greyhound racing track with their dog Jackie. Claud knows everything there is to know about greyhound racing, and he’s sure they’ve got a winner. Four months before Claud bought a dog that turned out to be a dead ringer for Jackie, but couldn’t run fast at all. They’ve been running the slow dog at the track for the past eight weeks to make sure that he gets moved into the bottom racing grade. Now they plan on running Jackie and placing all their money on him to win. The only obstacle is Mr. Feasey, who runs the track. He has an incredible memory and is able to spot an imposter dog from a mile away. Once they get to the track, they’re horrified when Mr. Feasey tells them that he doesn’t intend to let them run their “champion” anymore. As a last resort, Claud bets Mr. Feasey a pound that Jackie won’t come in last place. This piques Feasey’s interest, and he inspects the dog closely. Satisfied that it’s the same dog, he accepts the bet and allows Jackie into the first race. While Claud gets Jackie ready and bribes the winder (the man who pulls the rabbit that the dogs chase), Gordon goes down the row of bookies placing bets on Jackie. He stands to win over two thousand pounds. The race begins and Jackie wins easily. Mr. Feasey is furious and tells them that they’re banned from the track in the future. Claud takes Jackie back to the van while Gordon goes to collect their winnings. When he gets there, though, the first bookie won’t pay and says he backed another dog. All the details are in the bookmaker’s book, but he won’t let Gordon see it. None of the other bookies will pay out either. “You’re a thief! A lousy little thief!” Gordon yells. “Well, I never,” says the bookie. “Look who’s talking!” Everyone laughs as Gordon sees Claud waiting for him with a suitcase in hand for the money.



“Going Up”

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Information


Plot Description

Spoiler warning! Mrs. Foster has a pathological fear of being late. Whenever she is in danger of missing a train or plane or an engagement, a tiny muscle near her eye begins to twitch. The worst part is that her husband, Mr. Eugene Foster, seems to torment her by making sure that they always leave the house one or two minutes past the point of safety. On this particular occasion Mrs. Foster is leaving to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Paris for the first time ever, and she’s frantic to think that she’ll miss her flight. By the time her husband finally joins her at the car, she’s too far behind schedule. Luckily the flight is postponed til the next day, and Mr. Foster persuades her to come home for the night. When she’s ready to leave the next day, though, her husband suggests that they drop him off at his club on the way. Knowing this will make her late, she protests in vain. Just before the car leaves, he runs back in the house on the pretense of picking up a gift he forgot for his daughter. While he’s gone Mrs. Foster discovers the gift box shoved down between the seat cushions. She runs up to the house to tell him that she has the gift… and suddenly she pauses. She listens. She stays frozen for 10 seconds, straining to hear something. Then she turns and runs to the car, telling the driver that they’re too late and her husband will have to find another ride. She makes her flight and has a wonderful visit with her grandchildren. She writes her husband every week and sends him a telegram before she flies home six weeks later. He’s not at the airport to meet her though, and when she enters the house (after taking a taxi home) she notices a curious odor in the air. Satisfied, she enters her husband’s study and calls the elevator repairman. It had jammed and she left him to die there!


“Sitting Pretty”

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Information


Plot Description

This story, originally published in Dahl’s book Kiss Kiss, is another of the “country stories” that deals with Claud and his friends in the English countryside. (It’s not considered part of the original “Claud’s Dog” series, though.) The narrative centers on two men and the extraordinary method for poaching pheasants one of them invents. If it sounds familiar, it’s because Dahl later reworked the entire plot (and character names and huge chunks of dialogue) into the children’s book Danny the Champion of the World. That book, in turn, had a portion which was later developed into The BFG. As you can see, Dahl definitely approved of recycling his best ideas.

Spoiler warning! Readers of the earlier “Claud’s Dog” series in Someone Like You will undoubtedly recognize the title character Claud back in action. This time the story begins in media res as Claud and his cohort Gordon prepare 196 raisins to take with them poaching in Hazel’s Wood. Gordon’s idea was to fill the raisins with seconal from sleeping pills and knock the birds unconscious. They manage to get in and out of the wood unscathed, bagging 120 birds and dropping the sacks off in a hired taxi. The next day they wait by their filling station for Bessie Organ, the vicar’s wife, to deliver the birds in a specially constructed baby carriage. Before she gets there, though, the powder begins to wear off and the birds all fly out and settle down on the filling station. Horrified, Claud and Gordon know that Victor Hazel will be appearing soon.


“Death in the Square: A Christmas Mystery in Four Parts”

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Plot Description

This is a curious story, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. Is the narrator actually guilty? What’s the point of the onions? I wonder if it’s due to the four-author structure — was the story planned or did each author simply build on that had been written previously? What do you think?

Spoiler warning!

[Dahl’s portion:] The narrator is a secretary in a London office, and he (we find out later it’s a man) describes his daily walk through Kensington Square. He’s fascinated by the view he gets through the windows and inside the homes of the wealthy upper-class. He relates a story of an elderly Duke who, while visiting the narrator’s office as a client, broke wind in a spectacular fashion. The wealthy, he concludes, simply don’t care what the rest of the world see or think of them. He then kicks off the plot: one night while walking home, he notices a change at one of the homes on the square. Instead of the usual living room, he sees a bed with a strange elderly man with white hair and the black-haired lady of the house looking down at him. Later that night, he continues to obsess over how unusual this was and heads back to confirm what he saw. He is surprised to see that the bed and old man are gone, and the living room is back in place. As he watches, the black-haired lady appears in the window and glares at him as she draw the curtains.

[Ted Willis’s portion:] The narrator argues that he has never been prone to over-imagination, and he would have dismissed the whole situation except for the look the lady gave him: “a look of such malevolence and smouldering hatred that I had shivered.” Next he describes a visit from Carol, a casual girlfriend. He relates the story to Carol and she rationalises it while chiding him about his job and lack of ambition. When she leaves later that night, he walks her to her car. Curiosity drives him back to the Square one more time to look at the house. Suddenly the living room window curtains burst open and the old man appears pressed against the glass, his arms outstretched with a look of despair upon his face. The black-haired lady pulls the old man back violently and shuts the curtains. The narrator turns to go but is violently attacked. He catches a glimpse of a man with a ginger-coloured beard and smells the pungent odour of onions before he is hit over the head and slips into unconsciousness.

[Ruth Rendell’s portion:] The narrator awakens in the hospital and is surprised at the lack of police interest in the attack. When he describes his assailant to a constable, the constable says it sounds like Sir George Bentley: “It was him picked you up and brought you here.” The narrator concludes that someone else must’ve hit him, and Sir George is simply the last person he saw before he lost consciousness. Once he’s released from the hospital, he decides to go to the mysterious house to thank Sir George (and also assuage his curiosity). He finds the windows open and the lights on, and when no one answers the bell, he discovers that the front door isn’t locked. He goes inside and discovers that it looks like everyone ran out suddenly: the television is still on; a cigarette is still smouldering; food was half-eaten on the dining table. He wanders around and finds a string of “very pungent Spanish onions” lying on the kitchen counter. Then he goes upstairs. He discovers the bed he saw before, but this time the black-haired woman is lying in it, dead from a bullet wound in her forehead.

[Peter Levi’s portion:] The narrator finds a revolver near the bedside and examines it, then feels sick and nearly faints. He hears steps on the landing as the ginger-haired man calls out, “I can’t find him anywhere. He’s nowhere in the Square. He must still be in the house. Darling? Where are darling?” The narrator finally confronts the man and confesses that he found the lady dead. The man is overcome with grief at the sight of her. The police come, and they all go upstairs to the bedroom. As soon as the man goes inside, there is another gun shot and he falls dead on top of her. The police decide it’s a murder-suicide, and eventually they clear the narrator of any involvement. The official story is that the couple were actually the butler and housekeeper for a wealthy old man, and they kept him prisoner and stole his money. The old man must’ve hidden one day, leading the butler to go out looking for him. Meanwhile the old man shot the woman and then escaped, never to be seen again. The only lingering question for the narrator is why he’d been hit on the head. He decides that the smell of onions may have just been due to the violent blow on the head. “I’ve always mean to ask a specialist about it, but one thing leads to another, and I hate telling this story. That’s why I’m writing it down, to get rid of it. It’s nearly Christmas now as a matter of fact.”