Roald Dahl was, for many years, only known to me as the author of children’s books I read in grade school. It was not until much later—college, in fact—that I learned he also wrote short stories. And not just any short stories, but wonderfully twisted, mature, chilling stories. Stories that had me checking the cover more than once to make absolutely certain they were by the very same Roald Dahl of James and the Giant Peach renown.
It was a thrilling, complicated feeling to delve into a previously unknown side of the creative genius that shaped part of my childhood with Matilda and The BFG. I felt a bit like I had unearthed the sordid secret of a dear friend; there was something almost illicit in the delight I felt reading his adult works.
But there was a sense of familiarity, too. The same beautiful and straightforward language I recognized from his children’s books could also construct for me sinister worlds, string me along in suspense, and, ultimately, creep me out. His prose still evoked fascination and charmed me with its simplicity, but this time in the context of murder, deception, and even auto-cannibalism.
There are multiple story collections of note, each impressive and weighty in their own right, but first and foremost I recommend Skin and Other Stories. As it was my first introduction to the darker side of Dahl, it left the greatest impression. The titular story, “Skin,” is particularly disquieting. An old man named Drioli, down on his luck and lonely, recognizes the artwork of a dear friend from his past in a gallery window. He goes inside, only to discover that the talented young man he remembers from his youth has taken the art world by storm. When the gallery owner tries to throw the bedraggled Drioli back on the street, he hastily explains that he personally knew the painter, Soutine, and that he even has one of the artist’s earliest works. The owner and wealthy collectors are stunned and keen to buy, but for Drioli, selling isn’t just a matter of emotional separation, for the portrait is quite literally a part of him: one drunken night in Paris, he asked Soutine to tattoo his back.
Shaken as the climax left me, I couldn’t help but marvel at the creativity of the conceit, and the power of the story in spite of its brevity; start to finish, the story is only four pages.
Occasionally, Dahl’s own experiences are the template for his stories. Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during WWII, and during his service he crash-landed in Egypt. His story “Beware of the Dog” is about a wartime pilot who survives a plane crash and wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he came to be there. The pilot’s hospital stay seems perfectly routine, but he senses that something is off. As the days pass, he begins to question if he is indeed on friendly soil as the nurses and doctors assure him, or if he is justified in his suspicion that the doctor’s inquiries are not as innocuous as they seem.
Sometimes grisly, always clever and thrilling, you have to marvel at Dahl’s ability to evoke so much with such economy of language. His mastery lies, I believe, in his capacity to paint vivid, unsettling scenes without explicit detail. His short stories are a glimpse into another world, and testament to the fact that he is so much more than a children’s author.
Elaine Wilson works in the Editorial Department of Touchstone Books.