Roald Dahl: back in the spotlight

Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of a Roald Dahl story has Dahl being remembered as a children's book author with a dark sense of humor. But his stories for adults are typically more macabre. 

Roald Dahl was also a gifted writer for adults, and the summer reading season is a great time to connect – or reconnect – with Dahl’s stories for older bibliophiles.

Thanks to “The BFG,” director Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, grown-ups are getting a fresh reminder of Dahl’s power to charm youngsters – a talent the late Dahl displayed in such children’s tales as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

But why should kids have all the fun? Dahl was also a gifted writer for adults, and the summer reading season is a great time to connect – or reconnect – with Dahl’s stories for older bibliophiles.

Dahl (1916-1990) was an Englishman of Norwegian ancestry who fell into writing by accident. He’d been shot down while serving as a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II, yet lived to tell the tale. The novelist C.S. Forester wanted to write about Dahl’s experiences for the Saturday Evening Post and asked the young airman to jot down a few notes for him. Dahl’s narrative exhibited such literary talent that the magazine published them under his byline, and his career in letters took off. “As I got into the way of it they became less and less realistic and more fictional,” Dahl recalled of his stories, gathered into such collections as “Over to You,” “Someone Like You,” and “Kiss Kiss.”

Dahl had a long marriage to the actress Patricia Neal, helping her recover from a devastating stroke. The couple had other challenges. Their first child died at eight of a rare complication from measles, and their infant son was struck by a taxi, the injury causing water to gather on his brain. Dahl helped doctors develop a tool to drain the fluid, a gadget that would eventually become known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

Through it all, Dahl kept writing, churning out prose in a small shed in the family garden. During the winter, he kept warm while crafting sentences by wrapping himself in a sleeping bag. Dahl’s children’s stories often indulge a dark sense of humor, and his stories for adults are typically even more macabre.  In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” an iconic Dahl short story, a woman kills her husband with a leg of lamb, then cooks the weapon and feeds it to unsuspecting police.  In “Dip in the Pool,” a ship passenger devises a clever way to win a wager, yielding a deadly result in the bargain. It’s typical Dahl, horror served up with a wink. Profiling Dahl in 1976, the British journalist James Cameron asked himself how Dahl could work in the two dimensions of juvenile and adult literature.

“The answer, as I should have known,” Cameron concluded, “is that they are not two dimensions but one; a fairy story is a fairy story, whether the fairies be Good or Bad.”

A good introduction to Dahl’s work for adults is “The Best of Roald Dahl,” which collects his most memorable short fiction. It’s a great beach book, although it can, even on a warm summer day, leave a reader chilled to the bone.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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