The roll call of Roald Dahl’s books is impressive. There can’t be many children unfamiliar with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or The BFG. But teenagers often leave his books behind, not realising that he wrote some deliciously subversive short stories, just ripe for adolescent minds. His nod to the macabre is captured in this 2017 Puffin collection, ideal to dip into as September marks Roald Dahl’s birthday celebrations.
There are thirteen tales to enjoy, originally written between 1946 and 1980. The majority were written pre-1965, and certainly read like period pieces now, set in an era of telegrams, pound notes, and gentlemen raising their hats in greeting. Their unifying theme is, as one particular character remarks
…the faint desiccated whiff of something troublesome in the air
And trouble there certainly is, in this journey to the darker side of human nature. We encounter fiendish crookery, unhinged parenting, and a hefty dose of gleeful revenge.
Roald Dahl’s unique facility with language is ever-present. His books for younger readers are famously peppered with made-up words, and some, such as ‘Oompa Loompa’ and ‘Scrumdiddlyumptious’ have even entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. Several words in this collection struck me as fabricated. Breviped? Epexegetically? Look them up. They actually do exist, and are perfect in context, highlighting the author’s enviable descriptive talents.
I particularly liked his depiction of a dentist’s wife in ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’. Mrs Bixby’s marriage is stale. Her husband makes her feel like
…a sort of eternal patient, someone who dwelt in the waiting-room, silent among the magazines, seldom if ever nowadays to be called in to suffer the finicky precise ministrations of those clean pink hands
The twists and turns of the plots are startling, and laced with sly black humour. Keep Roald Dahl in your teenage kids hearts, with this engagingly unsettling collection.
The Great Automatic Grammatizator & Other Stories is published by Puffin, 272 pages.