An exploration of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction from Graham Williamson, discussing the (sometimes unintentionally, though often deliberately) nasty tint found within the pages…
There’s a tiny scene cut from Steven Spielberg’s film The BFG (US, Spielberg, 2016) that’s always bothered me. Towards the end of Roald Dahl’s source novel, the wicked, human-eating giants who have names like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler have been imprisoned in an enormous pit. In Spielberg’s film, this is the happy ending: the villains are defeated and the good are rewarded. In the book, however, there’s something extra:
“There was only one disaster. Three silly men who had drunk too much beer for lunch decided to climb over the high fence surrounding the pit, and of course they fell in. There were yells of delight from the giants below, followed by the crunching of bones.”
That moment stood out to me as a child, because it didn’t work in the way other stories did. It wasn’t functional storytelling; it set up no further plot point. It created a strange, unsettled feeling around the book’s conclusion, a feeling that – even back then – struck me as more ‘real’ than the clean, happy endings of most children’s literature. Looking at it as an adult, I can recognise it as one of the most commonly-used tricks of horror fiction: reminding the reader that the evil is still out there.
This was no surprise; Dahl might have been the writer who scared me most as a child. I still vividly remember my granddad buying me a copy of The Witches (1983), then having to reassure me that it was found in the fiction section. It’s easy to see why I was confused. The book opens with the sentence “This is not a fairy-tale”, and devotes the rest of its opening chapter to a first-person testimony of Dahl’s viscerally repulsive witches infiltrating society. “For all you know,” it continues, “a witch might be living next door to you right now.”
In another universe, I was outraged at the idea of a book lying to me and I swore off Dahl’s work forever. In this one, I was fascinated by the possibilities it opened up – a book that sounds true, but is actually just telling a story. As an adult, I know this is a ‘false document’, a technique associated with writers like Poe and Stoker: horror authors. I was an easily-scared child, unlikely to follow my more adventurous classmates into age-inappropriate fare like Dean Koontz or Stephen King. Roald Dahl taught me how to appreciate horror fiction.
Re-reading Dahl’s books now, it’s remarkable how many greats of the genre they echo. The Witches has an anecdote about a child trapped inside a painting; you wonder if Dahl was familiar with M.R. James’s ‘The Mezzotint‘ or Bram Stoker’s ‘The Judge’s House‘. Matilda, who uses her psychic powers to get revenge on cruel teachers and school bullies, is essentially a pre-pubescent take on Stephen King’s Carrie. Late on in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972), the sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Willy Wonka seems to invoke the invisible horrors of Algernon Blackwood:
“You can’t see Gnoolies, my boy. You can’t even feel them… until they puncture your skin… then it’s too late.”
Needless to say, anyone bitten by a Gnoolie becomes one.
These moments stick out because of their scarcity; cosmic horror and implicit horror are not really Dahl’s usual terrain. The horror that preoccupies him the most is a horror of appetite; a revulsion at indiscriminate greed, a sense of moral affront that human beings can be consumed. In The BFG‘s giant society, human-eating is so normalised that even a good giant like the BFG can discuss the flavours of different people. The titular Enormous Crocodile “loves to guzzle up little boys and girls”. The man-eating Vermicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator are metaphorically turned into food themselves as their incineration makes a sound “like bacon frying”, a detail echoed when the Grand High Witch vaporises one of her acolytes, leaving a smell of cooked meat.
Admittedly, Dahl also disdains gluttons for more conventional food, like Boggis, Augustus Gloop, and Bruce Bogtrotter. It’s a recurring theme that gives ammunition to the charges of fundamental ugliness at the heart of Dahl’s work, charges that are lent weight by his real-life antisemitism. The elderly are sometimes virtuous, but fat or ugly people never are, and the oft-quoted passage from The Twits (1979) about how somebody who thinks good thoughts can never be ugly doesn’t really subvert this attitude.
There’s also a question of whose standards denote ugliness. Dahl rewrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after the NAACP objected to its initial depiction of Oompa-Loompas as African pygmies, but his other works still have their racial blind spots. The man-eating giants in The BFG are described as being thick-lipped, dark-skinned and dark-haired, quite unlike the BFG himself. They’d fit neatly into an imperial adventure story about ‘darkest Africa’, or an Italian cannibal movie. Fear of the other has always been a part of the horror genre, for better or worse, and Dahl’s children’s horror stories don’t avoid this.
And yet, taken as a whole the morality of Dahl’s work is unexpectedly flexible. One of the scare stories that the narrator’s grandmother shares at the start of The Witches involves witches turning children into game birds and having their parents shoot them, a fate which is awfully close to the one dished out righteously by the heroine of The Magic Finger (1966) a dry run at Matilda (1988) with an interestingly self-assured lead character. Willy Wonka is a trickster figure who delights in his power to scare and punish, as well as enchant and reward.
There is also one Dahl story where the monsters prove to be an unalloyed good, which is James and the Giant Peach (1961). The magic bean seller is described with a public information film’s worth of stranger-danger tropes, but turns out to be no threat whatsoever, a reversal that sets up the book’s main arc of the giant bugs and insects becoming James’s chosen family. It is, in this way, the most redemptive of Dahl’s novels.
Perhaps James is predisposed to find the good in these B-movie monsters because he, himself, lives a Gothic existence. He’s an orphan trapped in a rickety house on top of a hill. The novelist who replaced Dahl as Britain’s favourite (and most contentious) children’s author, JK Rowling, would also create an orphan hero, but one who was imprisoned in a bland suburban house rather than a replica of the Bates Motel. Harry Potter is a boy with fantastic powers stuck in a dull life, much like Peter Parker, and for all its danger and death Rowling’s series follows the model of superhero fiction. Dahl’s work has a nastier tint – sometimes unintentionally, often entirely deliberately.