We proudly present a new series of guest posts from Molly Tanzer -
When I was a little girl, my father used to travel a lot for work - he was away nearly every week, for at least a night or two. When he was home, however, he used to read to me every night. It was our ritual. I would get into my pajamas and cuddle up in my parents’ big bed, and he would take me to other worlds, one chapter at a time.
One of our favorite authors was Roald Dahl. My father read me many of Dahl’s books, including (of course) Matilda, The BFG, The Witches, Boy (my favorite), and so on. I loved Dahl’s writing so much I still remember him sitting me down, oddly enough on the staircase of our house, to tell me gently that Mr. Dahl had died, one day late in 1990. I don’t know why that memory has stayed with me for so long, but it has.
My father also read me stories from The Roald Dahl Omnibus, an enormous best-of collection of Dahl’s adult stories, but after reading “Taste,” about a repulsive oenophile pulling a fast one on his host in an attempt to obtain his beautiful daughter, the famous “Lamb to the Slaughter,” and “Man from the South” he decided maybe those stories would be better left for when I was older, and wanted to read them on my own.
Read them I did, as an early teen, enjoying them even more than his acerbic children’s books. Dahl’s pessimism and misanthropy, but obvious delight in life and living appealed to me then (as it still does). I binged on his writing, which is unusual for me - even with writers I adore, I tend to read them piecemeal. But I remember as a young woman actively seeking out unfamiliar titles, which led me to gems like Danny, Champion of the World, which I’d missed somehow, along with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, My Year, a short book of gentle pastoral writing which contains among other tidbits an odd trick for ridding one’s garden of moles, and My Uncle Oswald, Dahl’s risqué adult novel about his fictional uncle, a sybarite who has bedded more women than Casanova. Though mostly it’s about said uncle’s get-rich-quick scheme to steal sperm from famous artists and thinkers to sell to housewives who’d rather have Marcel Proust’s baby than their husband’s. After reading that intensely silly book I (unsurprisingly, perhaps) declared Dahl my favorite author, and unlike other authors I loved as a young woman, that opinion remains unchanged. Warts and all - and Dahl has a lot of warts - I adore his writing.
Last year, when I realized that the Omnibus wasn’t a complete collection of Dahl’s short stories, I began to consider the idea of trying to read everything Dahl wrote, or damn close as I could get. Looking in to it, it seemed doable. I’d read most of his children’s works, one of his two adult novels, two of his three collections of poetry, and a substantial chunk of his short fiction. I decided I would do it—I would finish his works—and blog about the experience of tying up loose ends with my favorite author. You know, because that’s what one does in this day and age. Then, realizing how often I actually update my blog, I pitched this idea to my lovely hosts here at Pornokitch, as a way to keep myself accountable. This would also, I theorized, spur me to more actively seek out the harder-to-find titles, and that has already proven to be the case.
So. The TL;DR version of the above is that I’ll be blogging once a month detailing the results of my quest, the experience of reading Dahl’s more obscure titles, like “The Sword” from an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and ones I’ve simply overlooked, like Rhyme Stew. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. Anyways, I’ll also watch and write about the films and TV episodes he wrote, as I’ve never seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or 36 Hours. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” You know… something like that.
For January, I decided to go with what at least the Internet alleges are Dahl’s uncollected short stories: “Shot Down over Libya,” “The Sword,” “Smoked Cheese,” “The Upsidedown Mice,” “In the Ruins,” and “Measles, A Dangerous Illness.” All but “The Sword” are available online.
The first of these I read was “Measles, A Dangerous Illness” (1986). Distinctively Dahl with its brief, evocative descriptions and ALL CAPS EMPHASIS, it is a sad, beautiful little piece of writing. The essay begins with Dahl remembering sitting by his seven-year-old daughter Olivia’s bedside and realizing her case of measles has turned into deadly measles encephalitis, and ends with a plea to vaccinate all children against measles.
To this day, several thousand unvaccinated children still come down with measles in the UK, according to the University of Oxford. People still refuse to vaccinate, even though the Wakefield study has been disproven, and other arguments against vaccination such as “herd immunity,” debunked.
Twenty years before writing “Measles, a Dangerous Illness” Roald Dahl wrote this account of Olivia’s final hours:
“Awful drive. Lorries kept holding us up on narrow roads. Got to hospital. Ambulance went to wrong entrance. Backed out. Arrived. Young doctor in charge. Mervyn and he gave her 3mg sodium amatol. I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine. Not meningitis. It’s encephalitis. Mervyn left in my car. I stayed. Pat arrived and went in to see Olivia. Kissed her. Spoke to her. Still unconscious. I went in. I said, “Olivia… Olivia.” She raised her head slightly off pillow. Sister said don’t. I went out. We drank whiskey. I told doctor to consult experts. Call anyone. He called a man in Oxford. I listened. Instructions were given. Not much could be done. I first said I would stay on. Then I said I’d go back with Pat. Went. Arrived home. Called Philip Evans. He called hospital. Called me back. “Shall I come?” “Yes please.” I said I’d tell hospital he was coming. I called. Doc thought I was Evans. He said I’m afraid she’s worse. I got in the car. Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. “She is warm.” I said to doctors in hall, “Why is she so warm?” “Of course,” he said. I left.”
Given this map documenting the spread of measles and mumps over the last five years, largely due in the US and the UK to the anti-vax movement refusing the MMR vaccine, both pieces are genuinely haunting reading.
Next, I read “The Sword,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1943. This story is not online, nor has it been republished in a collection as far as I could tell. Therefore I had to pull a few strings to get a copy, but lest I implicate my accomplice I will refrain from describing how I obtained it.
“The Sword” is a short piece, set during the time when Dahl was working for Shell Oil and living in Dar es Salaam. While onboard a dhow carrying pilgrims on their way to Mecca he buys a “long curved sword in a silver scabbard… beautifully worked with a design depicting various phases of the life of the Prophet.” The sword is meant to be decorative, but it finds some… use when war is declared and the Germans living in Dar es Salaam become “the enemy.” It’s another great read, short and to the point and exciting, but it is also a fundamentally uncomfortable story, like much of Dahl’s writing about living in Africa. I’m not going to excuse away Dahl calling his servant Salimu his “boy” or “house boy” with the old ‘just a man of his time’ chestnut; given that I’m currently reading Going Solo, where he speaks about the practice of employing a “boy” I’ll refrain from commenting at all on it at this time, and save that for February.
“Shot Down over Libya” is Dahl’s first published story, an earlier, shorter version of “A Piece of Cake,” which can be found in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. But while the basics are similar (Dahl, while in the RAF and flying with the “Six Hurricanes” crashes his plane in the desert on a routine mission, and, uh, loses his nose) there is controversy over this story. In Henry Sugar he claims “A Piece of Cake” is his first published story; this seems not to be the case, as “Shot Down Over Libya,” published in The Saturday Evening Post, is short and to the point, mostly detailing the lead-up and events of the crash, whereas “A Piece of Cake” has an extended dream sequence, and other bits of the story are also expanded. As others have written on the facts and theories regarding this inconsistency, and several autobiographies of Dahl are readily available, I shan’t comment on why Dahl may have “revised” the truth surrounding the story and its publication history. Suffice it to say I enjoyed “Shot Down over Libya” more than “A Piece of Cake,” as I didn’t find the morphia-induced hallucination sequences in the latter particularly fascinating reading. For me, Dahl is all about lines like this:
“I kept spewing a lot of blood, and every time I did it, Shorty lit a match. And then he gave me a cigarette, but it got wet, and I didn't want it anyway.”
The image of a man with such a severe facial injury that he’s “spewing” blood trying to smoke a cigarette is, for me, the quintessence of WWII.
Moving on, “Smoked Cheese” and “The Upsidedown Mice” are similar to “Shot Down over Libya”/“A Piece of Cake” in that the latter of both are rewritten versions of the same story. A man gets tired of the mice infesting his home, so he glues mousetraps to the ceiling. The next night he glues all his furniture to the ceiling, confusing the mice, who stand on their heads as they think they’re the ones who are now upside down, which kills them due to the rush of blood to their tiny murine heads. Anyone who has read The Twits, published thirty-five years later will be familiar with this conclusion. Dahl often repurposed ideas and plot ideas; Henry Sugar’s personal slogan “It is better to incur a mild rebuke than perform an onerous task” is identical to the personal slogan beloved of his “Uncle Oswald,” for example.
Finally, “In the Ruins.” Not even three hundred words long, this ghastly little piece was probably my favorite of this batch. Read it yourself for free here. It’s a truffle of a story, and I don’t wish to take even a bite away from you.
Next Month: Going Solo.
Molly Tanzer is the author of the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book award-nominated A Pretty Mouth as well as Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations. She lives in Boulder, CO where she mostly writes about fops arguing with each other. She tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs - infrequently - at http://mollytanzer.com.