“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.”


“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


“Going Up”

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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!


“A Picture for Drioli”

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Plot Description

Spoiler warning! The year is 1946 and an old man named Drioli shuffles across the Parisian street in the freezing cold. He stops before a picture gallery to admire the painting in the window… and suddenly recognizes the name of the artist. “Chaim Soutine… My little Kalmuck, that’s who it is!” Drioli remembers a night thirty years before, when he had come home from his tattoo parlor flush with cash and bearing bottles of wine. The boy (Soutine) had been painting a picture of Drioli’s wife, with whom he was infatuated. The three of them get very drunk and Drioli comes up with an idea – he wants the boy to paint a picture on his back and then tattoo over it! The boy only agrees when Drioli’s wife Josie says she will pose for the picture. It takes all night, but eventually the picture is finished and signed. Not long after, the boy disappeared and they never saw him again. Josie died during the second World War and Drioli’s tattooing business collapsed. Now, in the present, he is reduced to begging in the streets. He decides to go in and see the other Soutine pictures on display. The gallery workers try to throw him out, but before they can he takes off his shirt and shows the crowd his tattooed back. They are amazed and immediately several men offer to buy the painting from him. Eventually Drioli is faced with a choice: one man offers to pay for a major skin-grafting operation, while another simply asks Drioli to come live at his hotel (the Bristol in Cannes) and exhibit the painting to his guests. Drioli chooses the latter and goes off to dinner with the man. Not long after, a strange painting by Soutine shows up for sale in Buenos Aires. And, the narrator tells us, there is no hotel called the Bristol in Cannes.


“The Way Up to Heaven”

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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!


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“Skin”

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Plot Description

Spoiler warning! The year is 1946 and an old man named Drioli shuffles across the Parisian street in the freezing cold. He stops before a picture gallery to admire the painting in the window… and suddenly recognizes the name of the artist. “Chaim Soutine… My little Kalmuck, that’s who it is!” Drioli remembers a night thirty years before, when he had come home from his tattoo parlor flush with cash and bearing bottles of wine. The boy (Soutine) had been painting a picture of Drioli’s wife, with whom he was infatuated. The three of them get very drunk and Drioli comes up with an idea – he wants the boy to paint a picture on his back and then tattoo over it! The boy only agrees when Drioli’s wife Josie says she will pose for the picture. It takes all night, but eventually the picture is finished and signed. Not long after, the boy disappeared and they never saw him again. Josie died during the second World War and Drioli’s tattooing business collapsed. Now, in the present, he is reduced to begging in the streets. He decides to go in and see the other Soutine pictures on display. The gallery workers try to throw him out, but before they can he takes off his shirt and shows the crowd his tattooed back. They are amazed and immediately several men offer to buy the painting from him. Eventually Drioli is faced with a choice: one man offers to pay for a major skin-grafting operation, while another simply asks Drioli to come live at his hotel (the Bristol in Cannes) and exhibit the painting to his guests. Drioli chooses the latter and goes off to dinner with the man. Not long after, a strange painting by Soutine shows up for sale in Buenos Aires. And, the narrator tells us, there is no hotel called the Bristol in Cannes.


“Rummins”

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Plot Description

This is a rather gruesome story from the “Claud’s Dog” collection in Someone Like You.

Spoiler warning! Claud Cubbage is walking his greyhound Jackie (see “Mr. Feasey”) when he meets Rummins, an unpleasant farmer who lives nearby. Claud mentions to Rummins that the Health Officer recently sent out a ratcatcher (see “The Ratcatcher”) to poison the rats that are living in Rummins’ hayrick. Rummins says that he and his son Bert will be over later in the day to fetch in that rick. When they arrive, Claud and the narrator come to watch them work. As Bert is hacking into the hay with a knife, he suddenly begins to hear a grating noise as if the knife were rasping along something solid. Bert is frightened but Rummins shouts at him to keep cutting. The narrator starts to remember the day that he helped build the rick back in June. Ole Jimmy had quarrelled with Rummins over the coming storm, and the men decided to stop working for lunch despite Rummins’ worries for the weather. Ole Jimmy was a local drunk who also worked as a maintenance man for the children’s playground. The kids and the town loved him. Claud and the narrator headed back to the filling station to have some sandwiches, while Ole Jimmy said he wanted to take a nap. When they returned the rick was finished and Ole Jimmy had disappeared, leaving his satchel behind. The narrator asks Rummins where he went, and Rummins hesitates before guessing that he went home. All this comes flooding back to the narrator as he watches Bert struggle to cut through the hard object buried in the hay. The boy finally manages to break through and lifts out the chunk of hay, only to freeze when he sees what is before him. “Rummins, who knew very well what it was, had turned away and was climbing quickly down the other side of the rick. He moved so fast he was through the gate and halfway across the road before Bert started to scream.”

(If you don’t get it, Ole Jimmy was dead inside the hayrick. That’s what the rats were eating and what Bert cut through with the knife.)


“Pig”

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  • Note: Sometimes confused with Stanley Ellin’s famous short story “Specialty of the House,” which is about a restaurant that serves a very special lamb dish. Ellin’s story was published in 1948, whereas Dahl’s didn’t appear until 1960.

Plot Description

This is a pretty gruesome story and it’s not one of my favorites. I think Dahl was probably trying to comment on the way this cruel world takes innocents like Lexington and basically puts them through the meat-grinder. Except in this case… it’s literal. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this one for the kiddies.

Spoiler warning! Once upon a time, a boy named Lexington is born in New York City. Unfortunately he is soon orphaned when his parents are accidentally shot by the police, who mistake them for robbers. Lexington is sent to live with his Aunt Glosspan out in her cottage high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is an eccentric old woman who schools him herself and raises him to be a strict vegetarian. As he grows older, Lexington starts to exhibit a talent for cooking and Aunt Glosspan encourages him to write a cookbook. By the time he is 17, he has invented over 9,000 different dishes. He is shocked when Aunt Glosspan suddenly dies, though, and he buries her himself behind the cowshed. The next day he finds a letter she has left him instructing him to go to New York and meet with her lawyer. Apparently the lawyer will read her Will and then give Lexington money to pursue his cooking ambitions. Unfortunately for the boy, the lawyer is an unscrupulous man who takes advantage of Lexington’s trusting nature and ends up giving him just $15,000 out of the $500,000 his Aunt left for him. Upon leaving the office, Lexington decides he is hungry and heads to the nearest restaurant for some dinner. To his surprise, he is served pork for the first time in his life and he finds it delicious. Eager to learn about this new food for his book, he bribes the waiter to take him back into the kitchen to meet the chef. The chef tells him though, that he can’t be sure it was pig’s meat. “There’s just a chance,” he says, “that it might have been a piece of human stuff.” He tells Lexington that they’ve been getting an awful lot of it from the butcher lately. He’s pretty sure that the piece Lexington had was pork though, so the boy asks him to show him how to prepare it. The cook says that it all begins with a properly butchered pig. Wanting to see how this is done, Lexington takes off for the packing-house in the Bronx. When he gets there he is ushered into a waiting room to await the Guided Tour. He watches as others go through the doors before him: a mother with two little boys, a young couple, and a pale woman with long white gloves. Finally his turn is called, and he is led to the “schackling area” where the pigs are grabbed, looped about the ankle with a chain, and then dragged up through a hole in the roof. While he is watching, one of the workers slips a chain around Lexington’s ankle and before he knows what is happening he is being dragged along the path as well. “Help!” he cries. “There’s been a frightful mistake!” But no one stops the engine, and he’s carried along to the sticker, who slices open the boy’s jugular vein with a knife. As the belt moves on and Lexington begins to feel faint, he sees the pigs ahead being dropped into a large cauldron of boiling water. One of the pigs seems to be wearing white gloves. Lexington’s strong heart pumps out the last of his blood, and he passes on “out of this, the best of all possible worlds, into the next.”


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“Nunc Dimittis”

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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.)


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“The Landlady”

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Plot Description

This is one of Dahl’s most famous stories and it’s been dramatized on television at least once. It’s got one of my favorite endings too, simply because it’s so simple and subtle… and scary!

Spoiler warning! Billy Weaver arrives in Bath after taking the train from London. He’s never been to the town before, but he’s due to start a new job there soon and he’s excited at the prospect. He heads toward The Bell and Dragon, which is a pub he’s been told he could spend the night at. On the way though, he notices a sign in the window of a nearby house: “BED AND BREAKFAST.” Billy looks in the window and notices that it’s a charming house, with a roaring fire and a little dog curled up asleep on the rug. On an impulse, he decides to check it out and rings the bell. It is answered immediately a little old lady who invites him to enter and tells him the room rate. As it’s less than half what he was prepared to pay, Billy decides to stay. She tells him that he is the only guest as she takes him to his room. When he goes downstairs to sign the guest-book, he notices that there are only two names in the entire book. The names are over two years old… and what’s more, they strike him as being familiar. As he struggles to remember where he’s heard the names before, the landlady brings him a cup of tea. He seems to remember that one of them was an Eton schoolboy that disappeared, but she assures him that her Mr. Temple was different. Billy sits down before the fire with his tea and notices a strange odor that comes from the woman, something like walnuts or new leather. They begin talking about the former guests, and she notes that both of them were handsome young men just like him. He asks if they left recently, and she replies that both of them are still in the house on the fourth floor. Billy is confused and tries to change the subject by commenting on a parrot in a cage, which he thought was alive but just realized is stuffed. The landlady reveals that she herself stuffed the bird, and as she is a taxidermist she stuffs all her own pets. Billy realizes with a shock that the little dachsund by the fire isn’t alive. He also notices a curious bitter almond taste in his tea, and he asks the landlady again: “Haven’t there been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years?” She gives him a little smile as she replies, “No, my dear. Only you.”

(If you don’t get it, here’s what happens: she poisoned the other two men and stuffed them. Billy has read of their disappearances in the newspaper, and now he’s to be the next victim! The bitter almond taste in his tea is potassium cyanide.)


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