Completing Dahl: Over to You
Monday, September 08, 2014
This year I’m blogging once a month here at Pornokitsch about trying to read everything Roald Dahl ever wrote.
I’m a little more than halfway done, and so far I’ve looked at one of Dahl’s more obscure titles, “The Sword” from an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and ones I’ve simply overlooked, like Rhyme Stew. 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.” Something like that.
The Stories of Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (1946)
All year I’ve been blogging my thoughts of finishing Roald Dahl’s works. I’ve read his poems for children, his first and unloved novel, his meditations on why you should vaccinate against measles. But save for “The Sword” and a few others that I blogged about back in January, I haven’t filled in the gaps in my knowledge of his fabulous short fiction.
I remember reading (or rather, being read) a few of Roald Dahl’s adult short stories as a kid. I recall it was in what my family always called “the house in the woods,” a big weird house in Georgia in which I spent some of my happiest years. It backed up to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, which was just Georgia scrub pine forest, full of ticks and snakes and deer, and it was awesome. Anyways, I digress—I only lived in that house from 4th to 6th grade, so it must have been sometime during those years. My dad had bought me The Roald Dahl Omnibus and he read me “Taste” and “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man from the South” and then decided maybe I should read these on my own. I did—I read them all. I recall being particularly impressed by the lecherous menace of “Taste,” the sinister otherworldliness of “Royal Jelly,” the gruesome “Pig,” the misanthropic “The Last Act,” and, of course, “Bitch” which first began my lifelong love of Roald Dahl’s fictional Uncle Oswald. Which, come to think of it, would probably amuse Oswald, given his philosophies toward women.
For years I thought the Omnibus contained all Dahl’s short fiction, only to discover that was (delightfully) not at all the case. The Omnibus contained stories only from Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Kiss, Kiss. It had nothing from Over to You, and did not contain the stories original to More Tales of the Unexpected (Tales of the Unexpected shares its contents with Someone Like You and Kiss, Kiss for those of you who might be keeping score at home). The gaps are not large - I believe there are 21 stories not in the Omnibus, 17 of which I have not yet read. Er, eight of which I have not yet read, now that I’ve read those from Over to You.
In order to facilitate this tying up of loose ends, I picked up a copy of Roald Dahl: Collected Stories, the Everyman’s Library edition with the intro by Jeremy Treglown, a biographer of Dahl’s. It has most of his stories: I must still obtain Two Fables, but that’s it. The other uncollected stories are ones I tracked down in January, and those which are collected in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar which I read (and re-read) a jillion years ago.
So, onward. Over to You is, just like it says, “ten stories of flyers and flying,” meaning more RAF stuff, for those who are super into Roald Dahl’s RAF stuff. I must confess his war stories aren’t my favorite - while I loved Going Solo those of you who have been reading this experiment will remember I was less impressed by The Gremlins and Some Time Never. Thankfully, Over to You is more similar to the former than the latter.
Like so many of Dahl’s later stories, the tales in Over to You have that weird quality of “is Dahl the narrator here?” It seems possible - those that are told by a definite “someone” about the goings-on in the RAF camps in Greece and Syria are not too tonally different from the way Dahl writes about his personal experiences. As I’m quickly zeroing in on finishing up everything I can for this project, I’m thinking of making December’s blog about a biography of his, or something… perhaps I’ll have some of my suspicions confirmed.
Over to You contains ten stories, only one of which I’d previously read (“A Piece of Cake”). For me, the standouts were “An African Story,” “Beware of the Dog,” and “Madame Rosette,” and the only one I actively disliked was “Only This.” Not bad metrics! Especially with the whole “flyers and flying” theme I wasn’t totally sold on to start out with.
Published in 1946, the stories in Over to You are some of Dahl’s earliest. While I might not have been as immediately intrigued by the wartime subject matter as I have been by other of his tales (like the embalming landlady in “The Landlady” or the sexually uptight vicar in “Georgy Porgy”), it was fascinating to read the early scribblings of someone whose later work is so much more familiar to me. The stories in Over to You are resonant with his later stories in intriguing ways. Most people familiar with Dahl point to his delight in twist endings, or at least turning the tables on his characters, such as the power reversal in “Lamb to the Slaughter” or the “no no, fuck you” ending of “Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat.” Somewhat surprisingly to me, Over to You doesn’t have much of that, but Dahl’s lifelong skill of developing and then sustaining the unsettling comes through loud and clear, as does his penchant for the bleak.
In “An African Story,” we get a rather M.R. James-ish setup wherein the narrator tells us how he obtained the titular African story from the papers of his pilot friend who had written it down before being shot down in the war. The account is therefore a faithful retelling of the true story told to the now-dead pilot by an African man whom he sheltered with after experiencing engine trouble. Interestingly, despite being one of Dahl’s first manuscripts, it has many elements that would stay with him throughout his career as a writer. Misanthropic, darkly funny, and dubiously moral, it’s delicious.
“An African Story” was only tangentially about “flyers and flying,” via the setup, but not so “Beware of the Dog.” In this story, a pilot is shot down and rescued, and it’s tightly focused on him. There is a disquieting weirdness to this story that reminded me strongly of old episodes of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This rather cinematic feel wasn’t lost on Dahl’s readers; in fact, it’s been adapted twice, in 36 Hours and a TV movie called Breaking Point. And yet, what intrigued me most was the story’s resonance with another story in the collection, “Katina.”
It’s no secret to anyone that I’m a sucker for interconnected short stories; building whole narratives through episodic flashes. What I wasn’t expecting with Over to You was that Dahl sort of… does that, a bit. Throughout the tales of Over to You there are RAF pilots who are friends of the (maybe?) constant narrator, who is also maybe Dahl. Stuffy, Fin, The Stag, and Peter all appear in multiple tales in the collection, but none so unsettling as in “Katina” and “Beware of the Dog.”
In “Katina,” which mostly focuses on an orphaned Greek girl adopted by the reoccurring RAF squadron in Over to You, also contains a powerful moment when the narrator hears that his close friend Peter has been shot down. With typical frankness, the narrator tells us “That afternoon they got Peter. He went off towards a village called Khalkis, which was being bombed by Ju-88s, and no one ever saw him again. Gay, laughing Peter, whose mother lived on a farm in Kent and who used to write to him in long, pale-blue envelopes which he carried about in his pockets” (36). The narrator had “always shared a tent” with Peter, and that night he has a rather weird experience where he believes he hears Peter coming in to their tent as usual. It’s written so well I shan’t spoil it by yanking it out of context.
The narrator knows Peter is dead… but the thing is, in the world of Over to You, he isn’t. In “Beware of the Dog,” Peter has had his leg blown off, in perhaps the most ghastly, grisly, visceral sequence in Over to You, and he has gone down, but he’s not dead. He’s very much alive, and we learn some of what happens to him. While “Beware of the Dog” is excellent on its own merits, it’s eerie reading about someone who is essentially a ghost… not once, but twice.
The Stag, Fin, and the gang also appear in “Madame Rosette,” and though there is nothing supernatural or uncanny in this story, it’s definitely eerie… because it’s a lighthearted tale of sex trafficking, played for laughs. It begins with one of the narrator’s friends, Stuffy, seeing a girl in a shop while in Cairo. He wants to “take her to dinner” (WINK WINK) and The Stag suggests he call up “Madame Rosette” in order to do so. Madame Rosette is, ahem, “a filthy old Syrian Jewess” (Jesus Christ) who deals in flesh. According to the Stag, she’ll get any girl for anyone, for a price. Call her up, describe the girl and where you saw her, and Rosette will dispatch a thug to convince her it’s a really good idea to go out with a strange man, for, you know, “dinner.” If she refuses, they raise the price until she agrees. When she agrees, she’s Rosette’s forever, because they’ll blackmail her into becoming a regular prostitute. Fun times! Anyways, Stuffy does this, then has second thoughts that aren’t moral so much as monetary. In the wake of this, they all get drunk and decide to “liberate” the girls from Rosette’s. They do so… sort of. Read it. Like I said, it’s obviously supposed to be hilarious, but it’s spectacularly unfunny. Dahl at his most offensive, as you might have noticed, sort of fascinatingly awful.
“Madame Rosette” is also interesting (to me) as it contains a long description of scorpions and scorpion fighting. I have no love of animal fighting, but scorpions appear so frequently in Dahl’s writing, and in such unusual ways, it’s interesting to note when they show up. There’s a scorpion in Rhyme Stew that, as you may recall, bites butts, and Dahl describes watching a scorpion and its babies while crossing the desert by car in Going Solo, a scene which I believe is lifted almost verbatim and stuck into “The Visitor,” his first Oswald story. Oswald is a collector of scorpions, which is mentioned in “The Visitor” and I believe in My Uncle Oswald as well.
“Write what you know” is commonly-given writing advice, and while that may not always hold true, Dahl could be an object lesson for those who would wish to prove that particular adage. I’ve read a lot of his autobiographical material for this project, and it is obvious his weird and random life informed at least the details of a lot of his stories. Obviously the more speculative elements in Dahl’s work are just that, but the little details that give life to his otherwise rather to-the-point storytelling style seem very frequently to be gathered from his unique life experiences.
Whatever the case may be, it keeps me coming back for more… in spite of monocle-poppers like “Madame Rosette.”
Later this month: More short stories! And I suppose I should get on watching 36 Hours.