Celebrating the work of the legendary Roald Dahl.
As Steven Spielberg brings to the big screen, Luke Dormehl looks at how a Master of the Macabre became one of our greatest children’s writers
Exceedingly tall, with long spindly fingers and a penchant for spending his time in a writing shed in his garden showcasing, among other items, a glass vial containing glutinous pieces of his spine and a large metal ball comprised of the wrappers of hundreds of chocolate bars, Roald Dahl could easily have been a character in one of his own books. One of his publishers once dubbed him the “Master of the Macabre”. While not a straightforward horror writer by any means, this description does justice to an author who didn’t just craft a string of successful children’s blockbuster novels about evil witches, child-munching giants and telekinetic young girls, but also lent his zany wit to dozens of adult short stories and a handful of great movie and TV scripts – from adapting his friend Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and Chitty
Chitty Bang Bang to playing a bit-part in the
creation of Gremlins.
Dahl was born in 1916, in Cardiff, Wales to Norwegian parents. His father, a businessman named Harald Dahl, died of pneumonia when Roald was just three. Although death is generally treated unsentimentally in Dahl’s writing, it is fascinating to note how many of the characters in his books come from broken homes in which one or both parents are dead. Sophie in The BFG, the unnamed narrator in
The Witches and James in James And The Giant Peach all share the trait of starting the book without their biological parents. The note of parental abandonment in his work is even stronger when you consider that Roald’s father died just three weeks after Dahl’s older sister: his father’s noted favourite. Characters such as Matilda Wormwood in Matilda are cruelly passed over in the affection of her parents in favour of her brother.
Despite these seemingly autobiographical features in his work, however, Dahl was reportedly as surprised as anyone to hear of their existence. “He absolutely detested analysing his own work,” says Donald Sturrock, former friend of Dahl’s and the author of the biography Storyteller: The Life Of Roald Dahl. “I once asked Roald about the fact that many of his characters come from broken homes. He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t do that. Other writers do, but I don’t.’ When I pointed out to him the overwhelming evidence that he did, in fact, do that he was completely shocked. He said, ‘You’ve rather caught me out there.’”
LEARNING HIS CRAFT
Dahl had an unhappy time at boarding school, which is described in his quasi-fictionalised memoir Boy. During World War II he served in the RAF as a fighter pilot and, later, as a diplomat at the British Embassy in Washington, DC. Dahl’s wartime experience formed the basis of his first published story: a 1942 piece for an American publication called the Saturday Evening Post concerning a near-fatal plane crash he had been in. He liked to claim he was paid $1,000 for writing the piece, which took him all of five hours to do. In fact, he was paid $300 for it, which added up to $187.50 after tax and agent deductions. Regardless, he had found his calling. In the future there would be far less need to exaggerate his earnings.
Dahl’s magazine story for the Evening Post was followed by his first children’s book, The
Gremlins, which was based on folkloric figures who, legend had it, were responsible for the mechanical faults on board planes. While not a direct lineage, Dahl’s book popularised the idea of “gremlins”, which four decades later led to Joe Dante’s 1984 hit movie, Gremlins.
From there, Dahl became known as a writer of twisted short stories for adults, often with fiendish and bawdy elements – and regular twist endings. At one point, his stories were turned down by the fiction editor of the New
Yorker on the grounds that they were, “a little too unpleasant for our general readers”. A typical example of one of his short stories from this time is Taste, concerning a wager regarding whether or not a wine connoisseur can guess
Roald Dahl, one of Britain’s greatest genre writers.