Born in Llandaff, Wales, of well-to-do Norwegian parents, educated in England, and a pilot with the Royal Air Force for part of the Second World War, Roald Dahl (1916–1990) is the author of numerous books for children1 and a relatively small but distinct body of prose fiction for adults: Over to You (1946), Someone Like You (1953), Kiss Kiss (1960), Selected Stories (1970), Switch Bitch (1974), and Eight Short Stories (1987). The Collected Stories, with an excellent introduction by Dahl’s biographer Jeremy Treglown, is a gathering of forty-eight stories of considerable diversity, ambition, and quality, with settings ranging from Kenya to rural England, London, and New York City and narrative styles ranging from the realistic to the fabulist and surreal.
Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.
Though in his fiction for adults as in his books for children Dahl exhibits the flair of a natural storyteller, for whom no bizarre leap of the imagination is unlikely, he seems to have begun writing, at the urging of C.S. Forester, as a consequence of his wartime experiences in the RAF, which included crash-landing in the African desert and participating in highly dangerous air battles during the German invasion of Greece. Such early stories as “An African Story,” “Only This,” “Someone Like You,” and “Death of an Old Old Man” draw memorably on these experiences and suggest that if Dahl had not concentrated on the short-story form and more or less abandoned realism for the showy detonations of plot made popular in his youth by Saki and O. Henry, he might have developed into a very different sort of writer altogether.
The first story in this volume, “An African Story,” is a tale of primitive revenge recounted in the most laconic of voices, as chilling as any of Paul Bowles’s parable-like tales of North Africa: an adventurous young RAF pilot develops engine trouble while flying solo above the Kenyan Highlands, makes a forced landing, and finds himself on a desert plain where he is given aid by an elderly farmer who tells him an unnerving story, or confession, “so strange that the pilot wrote it down on paper as soon as he got…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.