Academic Nook: The Epexegetical and Pernicious Dahl by Dr Joseph Palis

He is viewed as magical by some, while others think of words like “cruel” to describe his stories. Whether his type of storytelling is humorous or mean-spirited, Roald Dahl still manages to be both at once.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

His novels intended for children and young adults describe details on how to navigate the cruel waters that the adults inhabit. And for every ‘magical’ story about the Grand High Witch who wants to turn all of England’s children to mice in The Witches, I always feel an almost pernicious and unshakable feeling that Dahl meant for this scenario to happen. For real.

I read his collected short stories called Someone Like You published in 1953. The collection won the Edgar Award in 1954 for what I think is a triumph in writing about unimaginable malice and mean-ness directed towards common folks. But seriously, each individual story has its own malevolence and obvious relish in describing the minute details of situations that are macabre and bizarre but hilarious and in a twisted way, relatable. Dahl pushes you to believe that such situations exist and can happen among the typical and the normal.

I sometimes think that maybe because Dahl has such a wretched childhood that the distrust with people in his stories manifest this hang-up. There probably is no sure way to definitively say that all these precise descriptions of very uncomfortable encounters between people are symptomatic of his troubled childhood. But maybe there is a part of that which lingers and makes him imagine strange landscapes that provide a backdrop for his compelling stories.

His mastery in describing the inner workings of outward appearances are extremely keen and almost taxonomically specific. And also funny in an oblique sort of way. Consider this assessment of a stranger in Galloping Foxley:

“He was a biggish, thickset man, and even from behind he somehow managed to convey a powerful impression of arrogance and oil.”

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Or of a woman in Nunc Dimittis:

“The individual features, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the chin, are buried in the folds of fat around the puckered little face and one does not notice them. Except perhaps the mouth, which reminds me—I cannot help it—of a salmon.”

Dahl’s avid fascination in describing people is laced with humor and slight condescension. In My Lady Love, My Dove he describes his aversion for tall men in general and for his guest in particular:

“He was handsome in a long-faced, horsy sort of way, with dark brown eyes that seemed to be gentle and sympathetic. I envied him his fine mop of black hair, and caught myself wondering what lotion he used to keep it looking so healthy.”

Click on the image to be taken to websource.

In Galloping Foxley, the narrator observes a stranger who shared his compartment:

“He had of those unpleasantly handsome, brown, leathery countenances… Personally, I mistrust all handsome men. The superficial pleasures of this life come too easily to them, and they seem to walk the world  as though they themselves were personally responsible for their own goodlooks. I don’t mind a woman being pretty. That’s different. But in a man, I’m sorry, but somehow or other I find it downright offensive.”

James Hilton

He reminds me of another British author named James Hilton whose attention to details when describing an event can be illuminating as much as they are laser-precise. But while Hilton tells about Shangri-Las and the romance that amnesia can bring to a sour marriage, Dahl relishes with utmost skill the retelling of the exact shade of pain and hurt a person feels in the hands of a cruel master, a sadistic spouse, a scary stranger. There is always a surprising twist in his stories as horrifying to contemplate in real life as much as they are convincingly told.

In Man from the South, a well-dressed stranger propositioned a young man to a very ordinary and harmless game of chance—the price for the winner is a beautiful car, or if he loses, his finger. In Lamb to the Slaughter, the ever-smiling pregnant wife of a cheating husband, cooked and served the investigating officers the weapon she used to slay her husband. There is something bubbling bordering on the menacing and even malevolent in the  most ordinary of settings and circumstances. Is it about trying to gain power over another? Is it the joy in the quiet decapitation of a body part? I remembered a scene in Stephen Frears’ film Dangerous Liaisons where the Marquise de Merteuil confessed to the Vicomte de Valmont that betrayal is not her favorite word but cruelty because ‘it has a nobler ring to it.’ Did Dahl take lessons from the Marquise?

Dahl concocts the most elaborate set-ups for his characters for a myriad of reasons: to avenge a painful experience in the past or humiliate an obnoxious creature in the grandest way possible. Other times, they just want excitement and fun in their humdrum lives by eavesdropping in the intimate spaces of their guests’ rooms. In Nunc Dimittis, the main character took great pains and patience to stage the ultimate revenge to humiliate an acquaintance. It took a few months for the pay-off to happen, but when it did, it backfired gloriously in an even more degrading fashion that is as surprising as much as it is believable.

There is a part in me that questions Dahl’s odious fascination for the detailed and nuanced description of agony. In Galloping Foxley, a middle-aged man recalled the days when he was methodically beaten by a prefect—or “boazer” as he chooses to call his tormentor.

The littlest mistakes are meted with lashes done “slowly, scientifically, skillfully, legally, and with apparent relish, and I would bleed.” When the other boys in the dormitory inspect the marks on his skin, their comments focus on the accuracy of the beatings:

“Hey Perkins, let’s have a look.”

“How many d’you get?”

“Five, wasn’t it. We heard them easily from here.”

“Come on man, let’s see the marks.”

“Rather far apart, aren’t they? Not quite up to Foxley’s usual standard.”

“Two of them are close. Actually touching. Look—these two are beauties.”

“That low one was a rotten shot”

“Did he go right down the basin-passage to start his run?”

“You got an extra one for flinching, didn’t you?”

This schoolboy chatter would be commonplace and ordinary made absurd by the nonchalant description of wounds and lashes as though they are discussing prized beauty marks. Or fighting insects. The vivid accounts of pain and remembrance make these experiences your own—the reader’s. Dahl drags me to the edge of a cliff with his modern “ghost” stories and make a vicious attempt to push me in the ravine only to stop at the very moment when I think I will fall. But being on the edge of a cliff is the point. Ruminating the fatal implication of the what-could-have-beens is probably the position he wants his readers to be in. Except that the imagined cliff is make-believe. Reading his stories is visualizing the deep end of the ravine and in some ways it relieves me to remember that they are just stories. Not (my own) real life.

Dahl during his younger days. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Some stories are like nightmares similar to Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl in that they exist between a state of wakefulness and being asleep. And where paranoia and delusion co-exist in a constitutive dance. In The Soldier, the third person narrative style describes a disquieting situation but did not divulge the details. The reader is left to wonder what is going on when logic goes out of the window like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (which when you come to think of it is what happens when Dahl and Dali meet).

Some passages remind me of the times I thought I was in between worlds:

“Why was the hot tap in the bathroom on a different side this morning? That was a new one. It is not of the least importance, you understand, but it would be interesting to know why. Do you think she could have changed it over, taken a spanner and a pipe wrench and sneaked in during the night and changed it over?”

It is only later in the story that you understand or at least guess what is really going in the story.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Although his characters can be ordinary couples or people of privilege, they all share an appreciation and keener understanding of the finer things, both material and intangible. Most of these are peripheral and wonderful asides to his often twisted stories. In Taste, a oenophile correctly identifies the vineyard a wine comes from due to his masterful, unerring and flawless taste in liquor. Until something malicious is revealed at the end of the story. In Nunc Dimittis, there is a discussion of paintings and a disdain for modern art which served as the backdrop for an evil plan to be hatched. In Neck, the secret language of appropriate tipping in stately homes is in stark contrast to the scary violence that befalls people of privilege, while My Lady Love, My Dove described the butterfly collection of a husband with a devious scheme. Most of his stories display Dahl’s own erudition as filtered through his characters. His colorful descriptions are matched by the equally colorful language he employs.

In love with the power of language to establish the mood and set the atmosphere, Dahl can be playful and in some cases, breaks the third wall in his attempt to ‘speak’ to the reader. In The Great Automatic Grammatisator, he tells the story of a misfit not unlike Willie Wonka, who created a machine that bears the eponymous title of the story. The machine can write short stories and novels in whatever style and genre. Poking fun at the publishing business and the political economies of writing stories for a living, Dahl through his protagonist, describes the contraption and winks at us as he does so:

“…There’s a trick that nearly every writer uses, of inserting at least one long, obscure word into each story. This makes the reader think that the man is very wise and clever. So I have the machine do the same thing. There’ll be a whole stack of long words stored away just for this purpose.”


“In the ‘word-memory’ section,” he said, epexegetically.

Just like in The Soldier, the ending of this story is unexpected and can be seen as either repugnant or sickly humorous. It makes me wonder again if Dahl himself thinks this of people in general but does so under the voice of a character.

Only Dahl can be this epexegetical.

When not teaching geography and international studies to college kids, Dr. Joseph Palis collects owls: figurines, key-chains, sock puppets and other materials. He dj’s in a college radio every week and is currently obsessed with early blues and historic recordings. Aside from his love for tiramisu and Southern cuisine, he spends time watching obscure movies and attending loud-music concerts.

1 comment

  1. Tin

    Hi! I haven’t read any of his short stories for adults so I didn’t know about his macabre side. From his children’s books however I get more of grossness than macabre. Someone recommended The Umbrella Man to me but I haven’t had a chance to grab a copy but from it’s summary, it is another example of the distrust with people that you have mentioned. Have you read it? It is also shown in his children’s books a lot where the adults are usually portrayed as unpleasant. I find that there is a similarity in his sentiment regarding adults with Antoine de-Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince. :)

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