When I was very young one of my favourite books was “James and the Giant Peach”. I can still remember the vivid descriptions of James tasting a peach which made me crave the fruit for years to come. For some reason I never read more of his famous tales for children, but of course I was familiar with the stories from popular films like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’. What’s so interesting about Dahl is that his imaginatively off-kilter way of presenting the world shines through these dark fable-like stories that often involve some lesson about morality. I only became aware that Dahl also wrote stories for adults with Penguin’s recent publication of new series of books of short stories grouped under particular topics. It’s fascinating how Dahl’s distinct style still shows in these tales but they concentrate more on adult themes such as ambition, power, madness, cruelty and lust. I read the collection which centres around “Trickery” and hence each story involves a certain twist where different characters’ attempts to deceive cause them unexpected trouble. These play out in a series of creative and engaging ways which make them an absolute pleasure to read.
Although these stories are definitely for adults, Dahl’s sensibility is particularly suited to a child-like mentality. That’s not to say it’s naïve but it’s a perspective of wonder that shows how our imaginations continue to play a heavy role in our everyday lives even when we’re older. This can especially be seen in very short pieces that begin and end this collection. In the stunningly beautiful opening story ‘The Wish’ a boy plays a familiar game where he traverses sections of a carpet that has different coloured patches. He jumps between patches as if avoiding lava or snakes. Soon it begins to feel all too real and it’s as if his feverish imagination has overtaken his reality. Dahl demonstrates how this also occurs for adults as well in many different fascinating situations where characters believe their ingenious methods of trickery can manipulate things for their benefit. For instance, poachers try out a new method of trapping pheasants, a man in a foreign country tries to sleep with another man’s wife and daughter, a passenger displays unexpected talents, a couple attempt to conceal a diamond that unexpectedly comes into their possession. But our ability to control the world and other people often isn’t as strong as we think. Events go awry and we often get bitten back.
One particularly interesting story induced a feeling of déjà vu for me. ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ is about a philandering wife who attempts to conceal from her husband an expensive gift that her lover gave her. When I was younger I loved watching the short and clever series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As I was reading the story it started to feel increasingly familiar and I finally realized that this was one of Dahl’s many tales which was turned into an episode from this Hitchcock series. Dahl’s writing is well suited for Hitchcock since his stories so frequently involve a fun twist and this story is no exception. It’s also an example of a story which hasn’t aged that well or contains a method of writing that would fall under greater scrutiny today. It begins with a paranoid rant about the deception and greed of women which is obviously meant to be satirical. But occasionally the language Dahl uses for discussing women or people of different ethnic identities might come across as insensitive or cringe-worthy to some modern readers – particularly in the story ‘The Visitor’ which contains a lot of degrading references to Egyptians and Arabs. It’s true that these are all made through the subjective perspective of a particular character so can’t necessarily be attributed to Dahl’s point of view. But they are used in the structure of the story to create a feeling of menace and it’s this narrative strategy by the author that comes across as somewhat xenophobic. I’m sure the tone of this writing wouldn’t have mattered to most readers at the time it was published but it seems worth pointing it out now and stating that it’s mainly confined to this particular story in this collection.
I think this all adds another interesting element to the stories about how fear and prejudice can play into the way adults can imagine illogical threats coming from people and places outside their experience of normality. When writing about this its only right for Dahl to bring in people’s complicated opinions and prejudices as long as its done in a way which still respects the humanity of all the characters rather than just as a means of serving the plot or making a cheap joke. Regardless of these issues, it’s easy to enjoy these stories for their ingenious ways of showing how people can entrap themselves in sticky situations when they consciously attempt to deceive. Sometimes I could guess what the twist of the story would be before it happened, but part of the pleasure in these types of tales is anticipating how it might play out and then seeing how things are actually resolved in the story. I think Dahl’s fiction is particularly suited to being read aloud so people can share in that anticipation as it unfolds. The tales in “Trickery” have sparked my interest in reading the other volumes of Dahl’s stories in this beautifully designed new series.