Dahl’s first published story, ‘‘Shot Down over Libya,’’ appeared in Saturday Evening Post in August 1942. As Dahl’s earliest work, it merits the attention of anyone interested in the remainder of his stories. The story stems from Dahl’s experience in the Royal Air Force, heavily fictionalized, and introduces the element of violence which threads through his oeuvre. A pilot, a British flying his Hurricane in support of ground troops, meets up with an aerial ambush by Italian aircraft, which shoot him into the ground. He survives the crash, but is injured. Despite its slightness, ‘‘Shot Down’’ prefigures much of the later writing.
The short stories of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., collected in Welcome to the Monkey House, have been cited in comparison with those of Dahl for their darkly comic nature and often bleak assessments of human nature.
In Dahl’s story ‘‘The Way Up To Heaven,’’ a woman is infuriated by her husband’s chronic lateness. She begins to suspect that he is late deliberately to torment her. She siezes a chance opportunity to leave him stranded in a disabled elevator where he will almost certainly die.
For many years, Dahl was married to the actress Patricia Neal, whose autobiography As I Am (1988) contains a frank depiction of their life together and of the factors that drove them apart.
In James Thurber’s short story ‘‘Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife,’’ a typically mild-mannered, married Thurber protagonist had an ongoing joke with a female colleague about running away together. One day she varies her standard response by saying that first he will have to ‘‘get rid of’’ his wife. That night Mr. Preble lures his wife into the cellar of their home, planning to kill her and bury the body under the earthen floor. She is reluctant to enter the cellar, but once she does, she realizes what he plans to do. She belittles his plan, criticizes his choice of a murder weapon, and mocks his general ineptitude as a prospective murderer. The story ends with Mrs. Preble sending him away to find a more suitable weapon and screaming after him to ‘‘close the door . . . were you born in a barn?’’
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift is an early and famous example of literary irony and grotesque humor. Under its full title: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick, the essay shocked some members of the public when it appeared in 1729, advocating that problems of famine, poverty, and overpopulation be addressed by eating the children of the poor.