Scary Short Stories for Adults From a Master of Children’s Fiction:
When reading about Roald Dahl, I came across an admission from him that he had kept a secret diary starting from the age of eight. He would put it in a waterproof tin box, then tie it with string to the uppermost branches of a large conker tree in his yard, so as to be out of the reach of his sisters.¹ This image fit so well with my conceptions of Dahl as the brilliant writer of many of my favourite childhood stories. I can imagine him up there scribbling down the days events, dreaming about giant peaches and fantastic foxes, and chocolate. But how about dreams of a strange man who collects of human fingers? Or a mild-mannered landlady with a penchant for murder….and taxidermy?²
It was with great surprise that I learned of the early stage in Roald Dahl’s writing career, in which he produced strange, chilling and macabre short stories for adults. It is true that many of his children’s stories, while mainly humorous, contain darker elements, (think children being made into fudge, or Matilda’s horrible childhood) but in his adult fiction however, the proportions seem to be flipped; the stories becoming very dark, often with just a hint of humour. Dahl sums up his philosophy on the dark and macabre by saying simply, “What is horrible is basically funny. In fiction.”¹ Don’t let that statement fool you though, you’re not in for a good laugh, these really are spine-chilling and unexpected tales.
Since they are very short, today I will feature two, beginning with:
The Man From the South
This one begins pool-side at a Jamaican resort with a hotel guest enjoying a beer and a cigarette in the sunshine while watching the antics in the pool. He is soon joined by a Southern man with an unidentifiable accent, perhaps Italian or Spanish. They comment on the American sailors from the nearby naval academy who seem to be getting on well with the English girls in the pool. After a few minutes, one of the young Americans hops out with a lady in tow, and they claim the chairs on the other side of the hotel guest.
The Southern man, as it turns out, is a gambling man; he just loves to take things from others. What he takes must be something of value of course, since he enjoys the thrill of a high-stakes bet and eagerly puts up property of great value. He never asks anyone to put up more than they can afford to lose though, which is why, once convinced of the American sailor’s confidence in the efficacy of his lighter, (after some cigarette lighting and conversation) he proposes a peculiar bet. If the American’s lighter works ten times in a row, he will get the Southern man’s new, green Cadillac. Since the young man cannot afford to put up property to match that, if he loses, the Southern man gets the little pinky from his left hand.
After some convincing, the American agrees and the three men, along with the English girl from the pool, head up to the Southern man’s annex to determine, in a tense countdown, the fate of the Cadillac, and the pinky finger. Before the story is over however, we learn just how obsessed the Southern man really is with the thrill of a good bet…
To discover their fates, find the full story here.
Seventeen year old Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to report for a job. It is late and he is told to find his own lodgings then turn up at the office in the morning. Upon the advice of the train station porter, Billy heads off in search of the Bell & Dragon pub, which has rooms to let, but stumbles across a bed and breakfast first. The cheerful yellow chrysanthemums in the window and the peaceful scene of a little daschund curled up in front of a warm fire visible inside overthrows his fears of being served watery cabbage and he feels compelled to enter.
The landlady is rosy and kind, and Billy feels immediately at ease. He is surprised though, when upon her insistence he signs the guest book, to see that there are only two former guests; their names both vaguely familiar, and that the last one had been two years ago. The landlady explains that she is rather choosy with her guests, but that he is perfect. Her descriptions of the former guests get rather strange as she makes them some tea and they chat by the fire and she makes the occasional looney comment, but Weaver considers her to be harmless, even after recognizing one of the names as being from a newspaper article about a boy who went missing some time ago (she insists it cannot be the same Christopher Mulholland as her guest since they were from different places).
Things get rather more strange when Billy realizes that the parrot in a cage in the corner is actually stuffed, and stranger still when it turns out that the little daschund whose warm, peaceful nap had convinced him to come in, is also stuffed and that the landlady is herself the taxidermist. There is also an unusual smell emanating from the woman and a strange taste in the tea…
Read this spooky, evocative tale here.
Roald Dahl’s short stories were first published in newspapers and magazines such as: The Post, New Yorker, Harpers and Atlantic Monthly before coming out in book form. Many of his early short stories were published in the collection, Over to You.
Eventually his stories were dramatized for the series, “Tales of the Unexpected” and picked up by Alfred Hitchcock for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”¹ The Man from the South also provided the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man from Hollywood” which was part of an anthology film called Four Rooms.
To watch the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version of “The Man From the South” click here.
The Tales of the Unexpected presentation of “The Landlady” can be found here.
For a list of Roald Dahl short stories complete with summaries visit here.
1. Roald Dahl. The Man. web. 28, October 2o12. http://www.roalddahl.com/
2. Roald Dahl of course wouldn’t write these stories until much later and by that point, he really wasn’t spending any time in the conker tree. I found a description of Dahl’s workplace written by Christopher Simon Sykes for “Harpers and Queen” and after my fascination with Walpole’s workplace in yesterday’s post I found the difference between their workplaces amusing. Sykes’ description: “A dirty plastic curtain covered the window. In the centre stood a faded wing-back armchair, inherited from his mother and it was here that Dahl sat, his feet propped up on a chest, his legs covered by a tartan rug, supporting on his knees a thick roll of corrugated paper upon which was propped his writing board. Photographs, drawings and other mementoes were pinned to the walls, while a table on his right was covered with a collection of favorite curiosities such as one of his own arthritic hip bones and a remarkably heavy ball made from discarded silver paper of numerous chocolate bars consumed during his youth.”¹ This was certainly no Gothic Castle! Instead it was affectionately referred to as “The Hut.”¹ To each his own I suppose and within that hut was produced some mighty fine fiction from a brilliant author!
More Creepiness to come tomorrow!