In stories ranging from the macabre to the hilarious, Roald Dahl enriched the modern gothic tale through the indirection and subtlety of a narrative method loaded with surprises for the unsuspecting reader. His most famous works include “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “Royal Jelly,” “Man from the South,” “The Landlady,” and “Neck.” In situations which include both domestic life and high adventure, Dahl creates suspense and humor of a highly sophisticated nature. Beyond the simple surface of the stories lie the psychological complexities that fascinate his readers. In many of the stories, for example, a hidden sexual theme controls the violence of the plot. Jealousy, hatred, lust, and greed dominate the characters of Dahl’s stories.
“Lamb to the Slaughter”
In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a woman murders her husband and succeeds in serving the murder weapon, a large leg of lamb (deadly when frozen, delicious when cooked), to the police officers who investigate his death. An ironic tour de force, the story is typical of Dahl’s ability to develop an effect both chilling and wryly humorous. The story begins as Mrs. Maloney, a highly domestic, apparently devoted wife, awaits her husband’s arrival home. His drink is prepared for him, but no dinner is waiting because on Thursdays they always dine out. Six months pregnant, Mrs. Maloney is especially eager to have company in the house since she now remains at home all day. Her husband’s behavior when he arrives, however, is much different from the usual friendliness and tenderness she expects. He drinks more than usual and rejects her sympathetic inquiries about his work as a detective. When he bluntly informs her that he is divorcing her, she is stunned and can think only of somehow maintaining their daily routine by preparing supper. Automatically, she descends to the cellar, where she reaches into the freezer and retrieves the first thing she touches, a large leg of lamb. After lugging the heavy package upstairs, she observes her husband standing with his back to her. When he angrily announces that he will go out for supper, she unhesitatingly swings the leg of lamb high in the air and brings it down hard on the back of his head.
Instantly killed, the detective falls to the floor with a crash that brings Mrs. Maloney out of her state of shock, and she begins immediately to fear the consequences for herself and her unborn child. She quickly plans a maneuver which will supply her with an alibi and which prepares the way for Dahl’s ironic denouement. She puts the lamb into the oven to cook, tidies her hair, and rehearses an anticipated conversation with the grocer who will sell her the vegetables lacking for her husband’s dinner. She manages to chat pleasantly with the grocer, and when she returns home, she unleashes her emotions in an expression of sincere shock and grief at the sight of her husband’s crumpled body. Nearly hysterical, she telephones the police, who have all been friends of her husband and who treat her with sympathy and understanding when they arrive. Still, they check her alibi, and, finding it satisfactory, they begin to search the house for the murder weapon, which may provide clues to the identity of the murderer. When Mrs. Maloney begs them, as friends deserving hospitality, to eat the meal she cannot bear to eat now, they hesitate but finally agree. While they are devouring the juicy lamb, their dining conversation reflects the irony of their unwitting ignorance: Surely, they say, the murder weapon must be somewhere in the house, even right under their noses. In the next room Mrs. Maloney giggles as they finish off the main dish. A simple prose narrative turning on a single major irony, the tale has been transferred to film, and, in either medium, it effectively demonstrates the author’s characteristically ironic denouement, which has been likened in effect to the appearance of a grinning skull.
Another story which depends on a pattern of ironies is “Royal Jelly,” one of Dahl’s famous tales of the grotesque. The plot concerns a baby born to a beekeeper who experiments with the products of his hives. Almost from birth, the beekeeper’s new daughter loses weight because she cannot tolerate the formula his wife prepares. When the anxious mother becomes exhausted from worry and sleepless nights, the father calmly takes over the schedule of feedings. Noticing in one of his apiculture journals that bees nurtured on royal jelly, one of the richest food substances known to humans, gain many times their birth weight, the concerned father secretly decides to add some royal jelly to the baby’s formula.
At first the effect of the new food seems favorable, for the baby begins to eat eagerly and to sleep peacefully between feedings. When the beekeeper adds more and more royal jelly to the formula, the child gains weight and becomes cherublike in appearance. Within a short time, however, the baby demands such huge quantities of the food that the pleased father can no longer hide his secret. His wife is angry when she learns of his casual experimentation with their precious child. In his efforts to reassure her, he makes a still more startling revelation. He himself has been consuming tremendous amounts of the potent substance ever since he read that it helped overcome infertility in men. Their beautiful new baby is the result of his desperate attempt.
For the first time in months the anxious wife looks closely at her husband. To her horror, she finds his appearance much altered. He has not merely gained weight, but the contours of his body seem very strange. His neck has nearly disappeared, and tufts of stiff black body hair point upward to his head. The child in the crib, too, is surprisingly beelike in appearance. Like a queen bee, however, she has begun developing her digestive and reproductive organs at the expense of her tiny limbs. Her belly is swollen and glossy; her arms and legs lie motionless on the sides of the bed. The story concludes with the father’s final ironic reference to his daughter as their “little queen.” In his concern for her nurture, he has assumed the role of a worker bee; indeed, his capacity for emotional exchange is seriously diminished. The final scene depicts the horror and the helplessness of the mother estranged from her husband and her child by a bizarre turn of nature that she cannot comprehend.
“Man from the South”
Another of Dahl’s most famous tales of the grotesque is “Man from the South,” a story of macabre gamesmanship at a fashionable Jamaican resort hotel. The narrator of this story becomes the reluctant referee in a bizarre gambling arrangement between a wealthy, middle-aged South American businessman and a handsome young British soldier. Casually observing the satisfactory regularity with which the soldier’s cigarette lighter operates, the South American bets that it will not light ten times in succession. The soldier accepts the bet eagerly, partly in an effort to counteract the boredom of the long summer afternoon and partly to impress an attractive young lady relaxing near the pool. The narrator observes the conversation with only mild interest until he notices the arrogance of the ugly South American, dwarfish yet somehow given to the gestures of a much more powerful man. The stakes he proposes are shocking: The South American offers his Cadillac against the little finger of the soldier’s left hand, a situation at first refused by the soldier, then accepted by him in order to avoid losing face. The gamblers, the young lady, and the narrator-referee adjourn from their pool-side setting to an upstairs hotel room, where a maid rather questioningly supplies the objects the South American requests. A cutting board, a sharp meat knife, string, and pegs are provided; the soldier’s left hand is tied to the board; the South American places his car keys on the table. All the while the narrator ponders the chilling efficiency with which the older man performs the task.
Despite the anxiety of the narrator and the young lady, the soldier begins nervously to test the lighter. The suspense grows as once, twice, as many as eight times the lighter functions perfectly, but a sudden interruption ends the gambling. The South American’s wife enters and begins to shake her husband back and forth so rapidly that he resembles a cigarette lighter himself. Then the woman releases him and apologizes at length for her husband’s disgusting gambling practices: He has already taken thirty-seven fingers and lost eleven cars. Moreover, the car he has been using this time belongs to her. In this characteristic reversal, she appears, at least to the narrator and the relieved soldier, a comfortingly normal deliverer, and her husband appears the embodiment of the morally grotesque. The narrator relaxes as he watches her walk across the room to retrieve her car keys. Yet his glimpse of her hand on the table provides the final ironic twist. Only a thumb and finger remain on the claw-shaped hand, a grotesque suggestion of what she has won and lost from her husband. A study in the grotesque, the story demonstrates Dahl’s surprising reversals and frequent use of an observer-narrator who serves as an intermediate figure between fantasy and reality.
A narrator of the intermediate type also provides the filtering consciousness in the story “Neck,” which offers another ironic view of the hidden violence of domestic life. Comparable to “Lamb to the Slaughter,” the story concerns Sir Basil and his wife, Lady Turton, proprietors of a major British publishing firm. The setting is Wooton House, one of the great stone houses of the English Renaissance, and it is the atmosphere of wealth, beauty, and ease that attracts the narrator, an ambitious newspaper columnist who visits Sir Basil.
In the manner of relating inner-circle gossip, the journalist begins by describing the wealthy Turton family and Sir Basil’s forty peaceful years of bachelor life, marked only by his consuming interest in a collection of paintings and sculpture. After the death of Basil’s father, insiders on Fleet Street begin laying bets as to the number of bachelor days remaining to Sir Basil before one of the many ambitious London women succeeds in managing him and his fortune. The insiders are surprised, however, when Natalia, a haughty beauty from the Continent, triumphs over the resentful Englishwomen, and within six years she assumes control of the Turton Press. Having once been seated next to her at a party, the narrator observes that she is a lovely opportunist with the “air of a wild mustang,” a rebellious spirit particularly contrary to the mild civility of Sir Basil.
All this information, the narrator insists, is merely background for his experiences at the Turton home, where he discovers an unusually eclectic environment created by the display of modern sculpture in the elegant gardens of the past. Sculptured topiary, pools, fountains, and lovely flowers provide the backdrop for the work of Sir Jacob Epstein, Constantin Brancusi, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to name only a few of the artists included in Basil’s collection. Certainly the narrator anticipates an enchanting weekend there while he gathers fascinating details about the Turtons for his column. Once in the house, however, he perceives that something is wrong, and he prides himself on his heightened sensitivity, the result of having spent much time in the homes of others.
The almost stereotyped situation of spending the weekend in a great house where mischief seems imminent gives succeeding events the quality of a gothic burlesque. The journalist’s anxiety is multiplied, for example, by the strange behavior of the butler, who requests that he receive in place of tips one-third of the guest’s card winnings during the visit. The butler also betrays his dislike for the lady of the house and offers the tip that she almost always overbids her hand, an important detail of characterization which will be fully realized in the climax of the story. First, however, the narrator’s suspicions are confirmed when, at dinner with the other guests, he observes a quite obvious triangular love relationship between Lady Turton, Major Haddock, a handsome retired serviceman, and Carmen La Rosa, a wealthy horsewoman visiting the Turtons. Sir Basil seems so distracted by the whole affair that the narrator feels quite embarrassed for him and hopes to leave as soon as possible.
The butler also displays great sympathy for Sir Basil and obvious hatred for Lady Turton, whom the butler regards as a mere usurper and source of pain to his beloved master. The evening concludes most awkwardly when the lady abruptly dismisses the guests, the butler, and even Sir Basil so that she can have a quiet chat alone with Major Haddock. Naturally, the narrator’s suspicions mount to tremendous proportions. Indeed, the next morning the household seems more troubled than ever, and Basil behaves so strangely that the concerned narrator suggests they take a stroll around the grounds.
As they discuss the sculptures, Basil’s only pleasant distraction, they cannot help noticing in the distance some intruders on the grounds. Near one of the sculptures done by Henry Moore, a man and woman seem to be behaving flirtatiously. The woman playfully sticks her head and arms through the various openings in the huge statue; her companion laughs uproariously and draws close to her, perhaps to kiss her. As the gentlemen draw nearer, they realize with embarrassment that the pair below are not intruders but Lady Turton and Major Haddock, amusing themselves with Basil’s prized collection. Suddenly the lady begins to struggle, however; her head is caught fast in the sculpture, and her partner cannot help her. While she waves her arms frantically, Basil becomes increasingly nonchalant as he slows his pace and resumes casual conversation with the narrator. Certainly Lady Turton has overbid her hand this time.
The climactic scene occurs when Basil and the narrator reach the anxious pair. Natalia furiously demands that Basil cut her free from the sculpture, and the butler soon appears with an ax and saw for his master to use. Basil pauses briefly, however, to admire the sculpture, which is one of his favorites. In the interim, the narrator observes that for some reason the butler seems to want Basil to select the ax, by far the more dangerous of the implements. Then Basil, with startling speed, reaches for the ax and without hesitation prepares to swing at his wife’s neck. The terrified narrator shuts his eyes in anticipation of her death. When he opens his eyes, however, the ax appears still upraised, and the lady seems only gurgling with hysteria. Basil, acknowledging that the ax is much too dangerous for this job, exchanges it for the saw. For the narrator, however, the change of implements is insignificant now: In his imagination, the lady’s execution has taken place, and, after that terrifying moment, nothing will ever be the same. In contrast, Basil’s eyes begin to twinkle secretly as he begins sawing through the heavy wood.
Readers are left with a puzzle at the end of the story, for from the description of the lady’s head in the last scene, they cannot be absolutely sure that the blow has not landed. For them, as for the narrator, the event is realized in the imagination. On another level, the lady has only been threatened with a punishment that fits her crime of overreaching. What passes for justice in her case adds to the comic effect generated by the stereotyped situation and such characters as the aspiring journalist, the passionate usurper, the sinister butler, the major named for a fish, and the overweight horsewoman named Carmen. The mild-mannered Basil enjoys a triumph uncommon to most henpecked husbands.
Typical of Dahl, the story “Neck” has several sides: It is an entertaining anecdote offered by an easily impressed narrator, a modern gothic tale with comic elements, and finally, perhaps, an examination of what constitutes reality. For readers cannot help identifying momentarily with the narrator when he closes his eyes to avoid watching the ax fall; what happens to the lady in the ambiguous final scene is, after all, what readers believe about it. Perhaps a major reason for the success and popularity of Dahl’s work and of mystery stories in general is their essentially Romantic attitude, an insistence on a world of possibilities beyond humdrum daily existence. The vision such stories create provocatively mingles the extremes of joy and pain, laughs and shrieks of terror, in offering a singularly pleasing, if brief, sensation of the realities beyond typical human experience.