Roald Dahl was remarkable for having achieved wide acclaim in two distinct genres: macabre tales for adults and children’s literature. The son of Norwegian immigrants who found prosperity in Wales, his childhood was darkened by his father’s early death and his unhappy experiences at various English boarding schools. Rather than attend college, he went to work for Shell Oil. An assignment in Africa delighted him and provided materials for such stories as “Poison.”
During World War II Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he was a successful fighter pilot but suffered injuries that would plague him all his life. He was reassigned to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., to work as a spy. Here he met C. S. Forester, who wanted to do an article about Dahl’s experiences in the RAF. Dahl decided to write the article himself, however, and with Forester’s encouragement he sold several stories about pilots that he later collected in Over to You. A few of these stories, among them “An African Story,” veer into the fantastic and allow a glimpse of the macabre sensibilities for which Dahl later became known. He also wrote a children’s story, The Gremlins, about mischievous critters sabotaging fighter planes, which Walt Disney purchased, though the film was never made.
After the war Dahl decided to try writing for a living. When his novel Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen received mixed reviews, he returned to writing short stories. In the eighteen stories of Someone Like You Dahl portrays a variety of characters who at first appear the very picture of English gentility, a veneer through which madness and cruelty eventually seep like acids. Among the frequently reprinted tales are “Lamb to Slaughter,” in which a long-suffering housewife murders her husband and disposes of the murder weapon in an unusual way, and “Taste,” “Man from the South,” and “Dip in the Pool,” about the disastrous wagers of obsessive gamblers. The theme of dangerous risk-taking recurs in many stories.
The stories in Kiss, Kiss, as its ironic title implies, focus on problematic relationships between men and women. “The Way up to Heaven,” for example, portrays a woman with a pathological fear of being late, whose husband torments her by procrastinating whenever they have an appointment; when she realizes that he has intentionally become stuck in an elevator to delay her trip to the airport, she leaves him in it to die. In “William and Mary,” a tyrannical husband’s brain and eye are kept alive by a scientist after his death; Mary takes her husband’s remains home so he can watch her revel in her new freedom. Both collections, which were compared with the works of Saki and John Collier, won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Dahl married the American actress Patricia Neal in 1953. Although their marriage was troubled from the start, their four children kept them together until 1983 (a fifth child died of measles in childhood, and their only son developed hydrocephalus after being hit by a car). When Neal suffered a stroke in 1965, Dahl bullied her back to health, an experience frequently romanticized by biographers.
When Dahl began writing for children, his stories found an enthusiastic reception. James and the Giant Peach was an instant success, and reception of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was even greater; Dahl participated in writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Subsequent books–among them The Magic Finger, The Enormous Crocodile, and Matilda–were hugely popular, and The Witches won the Whitbread Award. Though Dahl’s young protagonists are frequently orphaned, he repeatedly shows family solidarity and love as powerful enough to carry the children through their fantastic adventures. Some reviewers thought that Dahl’s stories for children encourage disrespect for adults and depict too much cruelty and crude humor, but most critics judged them favorably, and the stories continue to be loved by young readers and adults alike.