Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Roald Dahl’s “Grown-up” Stories.

Roald Dahl figured quite prominently in my childhood reading line-up. Starting with Mathilda, I’ve read and loved most of his children’s books. Then I forgot all about him until a few years ago when someone gifted me a collection of his short stories for grown-ups. It was quite a revelation to me that the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox had written these sinister tales. This week I read two of his short stories. Both these stories are by no means the best of Dahl, and that is saying something because these are really good. You could randomly pick up any of his short stories and be guaranteed a good read. Some of my favorite Dahl stories are, The Great Automatic Grammatizator , Skin and The Way Up to Heaven. I opted to review stories that are available online so you can read them, if you haven’t already.

Man from the South

The story begins with the narrator lounging by a pool in a hotel in Jamaica where he’s joined by an odd man of unknown nationality. Soon an American sailor and an English girl also take up seats beside them. The American offers Carlos, the stranger, a light from his cigarette lighter and brags about the lighter never failing to light up, even when it is windy. Carlos then suggests that they bet on it. A bizarre yet tempting bet. If the American manages to light his lighter ten consecutive times, Carlos will give him his brand new Cadillac, but should he lose, he must give up his little finger.

This story is titled The Smoker in some collections. It is classic Roald Dahl. Politically incorrect, bizarre and dark with an unexpected ending. Dahl doesn’t bother with setting or back story or in-depth characterizations.  You know as much as you need to know and no more. In a strange way, this is much more menacing. The character of Carlos, for instance, you can’t figure him out. He sometimes seems eccentric, sometimes sinister and sometimes just plain pathetic. This story, with its intriguing premise and clean structure, lends itself, very easily to adaptations and spin offs.  I’ve seen/read three different versions of it but the original still has the most impact.

Lamb to the Slaughter

Mary Maloney is pregnant and happily married to Patrick, a police detective. At least, she thinks she is happily married. Patrick, it seems, has other ideas. Here again, we are not really told what Patrick thinks but it is implied that he is about to walk out on Mary. The details are not provided because they don’t matter. Without any clear idea of what she’s about to do, Mary strikes Patrick on his head with a frozen leg of lamb.

This isn’t really a whodunit, more of a ‘is-she-going -to-get-away-with-it’. It’s a unique spin on the standard murder mystery and the sheer simplicity of the plot really works. Dahl deals with murder and its aftermath as if it were an interesting but inconsequential puzzle.

These stories are a great example of the writer’s skill. Dahl’s short stories, or what I’ve read of them, are all about the mundane turning macabre. Not for him the deserted houses and the dark alleys.  His sinister creations walk among us, living seemingly ordinary lives. Every time you read a story of his, you are expecting a shake up at the end and yet he still manages to shock you. 

Short Stories on Wednesday is hosted by Risa at
Roald dahl image from


  1. I love these Wednesday posts. You always have such good recommendations.

  2. Man from the South (which is the title of it in my copy of The Umbrella Man and Other Stories) is one of the Dahl short stories that has stuck with me the most. As soon as I read the title of the blog post I thought of that man and his wager. It may not be my favorite Dahl, but it certainly left an impression on me. And now I'll have to check out Lamb to the Slaughter

  3. I've just bought the Everyman's library hardback of Roald Dahl's grown up stories (literally - it arrived yesterday!), so what a lovely coincidence that you're reading them for the Wednesday meme :-)

    He was the master of the twist in the tale, and wrote some truly great stories. They were adapted for television in the 1980s and played every Sunday night in the UK as "Tales of the Unexpected". The TV adaptation has not aged well and looks very corny and dated now, but the stories are as fresh and sinister as ever!

  4. My daughters first read Mathilda five years ago at ages- 7, 9, and 13-they totally loved it-we did a family read aloud with each person reading a paragraph-we started with just my wife and I and the girls but soon they added in a number of their friends and cousins-they totally love the movie-they went on to read more of his work and have treasured copies in their rooms-I also liked reading them but have never read any of his work aimed at adults-thanks for this excellent post

  5. Dana Thank you. I'm glad you're liking my recommendations.

    Red Man from the South is a very striking story. It was adapted so many times. I especially like the segment of the movie Four Rooms based on this story. Directed by Tarantino I believe.

    Sophia I've hear about Tales of the Unexpected. I must look it up. Hope you enjoy your book.

    Mel U A family read aloud is such great way to bond over a book. I would love to do that with my son when he's old enough to read. Do read his adult stories. They are very well written. Especially The Great Automatic Grammatizator.

  6. Great post. I love Roald Dahl's short stories for adults. They always contain unique people or settings, and they're never predictable. I read Man From the South because it's included in The Umbrella Man and Other Stories, so I'm off to read Lamb to the Slaughter now. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Thanks so much for checking out my contribution to Short Stories on Wed. :)

    I didn't know Dahl wrote anything for adults but then I missed out on him completely (except for movies) till this summer. Weird, I know.

    One of my book bloggy friends wrote about his books saying she was undecided on whether she truly liked them or not-- some made her uneasy. I was intrigued by the idea of childrens books making anyone uneasy and had to see what I thought so I went on a personal Dahl-a-thon. I loved the books especially Matilda and Charlie and plan to read more.

    And I will try his short stories sometime too--I must know what happens with the wager/finger and the title of the lamb one is pretty funny though the Mr. Maloney would probably disagree.

  8. Darlyn You're right about Dahl's short stories. I hope you enjoy Lamb to Slaughter.

    Lesa :) Dahl's short stories are really edgy and dark. But they're also funny. I suppose you'd call it dark humor.

  9. Oh, wow. I didn't know Dahl had adult fiction, either. Thanks for this review. Sounds wonderful.

  10. Are the other versions by Dahl? If so, that's an amazing thing in itself, that an author would write and publish differing versions of the same story. It's hard for me to get past the stupidity of being that proud of your lighter that you'd risk your finger. :<)

    I think Lamb is the most often anthologized.

    Years and years ago there was some tv program (series?) that offered odd stories, and one of them was a Dahl tale about bees. Tom and I still occasionally say bzzz, bzzz from the show. :<) I just did some searching and saw that it is called Royal Jelly. I couldn't find the story online, except for this amazing little site where it is read aloud to us by a young woman!

  11. Logankstewart Thanks for stopping by.

    Nan the other versions I mentioned were a movie adaptation and a sort of spoof. Thanks for mentioning Royal Jelly. I've heard of it but never read it. I'm going to try and hunt for it in my library.

  12. I read a book of his short stories not so long ago when I finally listened to a friend and picked them up. I thought they were a little dated though. Lamb to the Slaughter was the only one I actually enjoyed. Was extremely disappointed. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if my friend hand't raved about them so much.

  13. Karen I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the book. Lamb to Slaughter is one of his iconic stories. Perhaps you can try The Man from the South as well.

  14. I might do, my expectations of it were maybe too high as I didn't hate it.

    I actually had a discussion with a boy I tutored about Lamb to Slaughter. He hadn't read the story but for some reason I told him about it (am sure it must have been related to something he was working on) and he spent a good ten minutes trying to work out a flaw in plot. It was quite funny.

  15. Hola, quizás os interese saber que tenemos una colección que incluye el relato 'Parson’s Pleasure' de Roald Dahl en versión original conjuntamente con el relato 'The Other Two' de Edith Wharton.

    El formato de esta colección es innovador porque permite leer directamente la obra en inglés sin necesidad de usar el diccionario al integrarse un glosario en cada página.

    Tenéis más info de este relato y de la colección Read&Listen en

  16. Roald Dahl pretty much was my childhood reading and I'm still a big fan. I've read Lamb to the Slaughter and your comment about Dahl's stories being 'the mundane turning macabre' is so apt.

  17. TG Thank you. I've read most of his books for children and i'm now exploring the 'grown up' works.