It felt like a cockroach had crawled across my brain. How could these words have been written by the pen that inked James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG? This was my first encounter with a Roald Dahl short story.
And then I remembered: The Witches. An orphan boy, told tales by his grandmother of witches with deformed feet, bald heads and a hatred of children. Dark and sinister, the clue that the story was written for children evident mainly by the happy ending. It made sense to me then. The Roald Dahl of my childhood is the same as the Dahl of my adolescence and adulthood, appropriately creepy to suit any stage of life.
Paging through the Penguin anthology of Ten Short Stories by Roald Dahl, I looked closer at the creepiness that seemed to be ramped up a notch for older readers. I realised that it had always been there, in his stories for children, but that the true starkness of Dahl’s uncanny imagination is laid bare in his short stories.
The cockroach feeling reminded me that almost every short story I have ever read has been eerie and unsettling in some way, never just a quick diversion on a sunny day, but a murky meander into the complicated dark places of human existence. I experienced this sensation before, as a child encountering an anthology of short stories for the first time, but it was Dahl’s collection that really lodged the idea into my consciousness, this belief that short stories were peculiar, something that I would not like to overdose on for fear of the disquiet that was left hanging at the edges of my mind each time I came to the end of a climactic, disturbing tale.
At times I gave up on reading short stories altogether, because I would rather avoid excessive bizarreness.
But the concentrated punch of a story with few words is narcotic even to a reader who loves to fall deeply into long drawn out novels. Sometimes a masterpiece is worth 10 pages, sometimes over 1000, but even Vikram Seth apologises in A Suitable Boy for his long-windedness by quoting Voltaire: ‘the secret to being a bore is to say everything.’
With a Dahl short story, it is often what is not said that is most disturbing. The conclusion is inevitable, but forcing the reader to put their own words to the finish involves the reader in a way that leaves you unsettled, complicit in the darkness of the ending.
Why do we love morbid tales, why are we fascinated by the ugly side of human nature, and why do we come back to these disquieting stories again and again? A master of the craft, Dahl seems to know implicitly that understatement and euphemism can knock your imagination over the edge better than any blunt force explanation could.