I make passing references to my Top Five (or Ten) List, but these lists don’t exist. Books float in and out of these designations and, if I added up my Top Ten, I’d have twenty books. So listen close: I’m going to be uncharacteristically definitive: this collection, The Best of Roald Dahl, is the best collection of short fiction (by a single author). Disagree? Send suggestions! I take requests (see Twilight, see also Gone Girl). Now, this collection isn’t for everyone—it’s definitely not for kids and shouldn’t be confused with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which is delightfully messed up).
One of the most famous stories in this collection, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” pops up in a number of English classes so you may have read it already. If it hasn’t (and even if it has), you can read it here: “Lamb to the Slaughter.” I’ve been wracking my brain for the words to express how much I love Dahl’s writing, but I realize now that I can throw you a link and let the man sell himself.
Dahl’s stories cover a remarkable variety of topics. He writes as though he has traveled the world, is a mad scientist, an oenophile, a furniture expert, a musician… He imparts knowledgeable authority to his characters no matter their field or interest. Surprisingly, the first story is the weakest and serves as a poor hook for the collection. “Madame Rosette” lacks his customary turn of bleak humor/brilliance and is straightforward. It might have been written by anyone. What it does establish, however, is a clear line (via an Egyptian brothel) between this collection and his children’s literature. The realization that Dahl has more stylistic tricks up his sleeve than I’d given him credit for is what kept me reading past this initial story.
About those turns at the ends of his stories…
They can’t rightly be called twists. They’re more like clarifications. Many of his stories are taut, suspenseful pieces that left me wondering at the possible resolutions. I knew something big would happen (or be explained), but I could rarely put my finger on it. Typically, I know where a writer is going, but Dahl provided some laugh-out-loud shockers. As dark and “wicked” as many of his stories are, there’s always a spark of wry humor.
“Man from the South”
The second story—the one to really grab me after the intriguing, but plain, “Madame Rosette.” It features a nasty, old gambler who bets expensive items and collects his “winnings” with a butcher knife.
“Dip in the Pool”
More gambling, but on a cruise ship. A nervous man is about to lose his savings and enacts a bizarre plan to fix the odds in his favor.
“The Way Up to Heaven”
My favorite. I would have linked to this story if I’d found it online. It follows a very anxious woman who absolutely, positively, without exception cannot stand to be late. She is preparing for a long flight and her husband, who may or may not be doing so maliciously, invents tiny reasons to hold her up. The way her distress and unease builds is extraordinary. I found myself shouting at her husband to HURRY UP, ALREADY. And the end…
This is a longer story that revels in details. A man dresses as a parson and cruises the countryside, buying up antique furniture at rock-bottom prices. Picture Antiques Road Show + Sleaze + False Valuations and you’ve got it. He finds an exceedingly rare piece and tries to talk it away from its owners. The ending on this one made me laugh so hard that I cried. And no skipping to the end! I know the furniture descriptions can go on a bit, but they’re worth it in the end.
A man invites an irritating wine-lover to dinner. The descriptions of food and wine are extraordinary. I’d like to crack open a bottle just thinking about this one—and I don’t even like wine. (Gin, please.)
“Edward the Conqueror”
A woman is convinced that a stray cat is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt to the frustration (and jealousy) of her husband. I like music (and cats), so I was a bit partial to this one. Though, because people are funny about animal stuff, I ought to warn you that it doesn’t work out for the cat in the end.
“William and Mary”
A truly WTF ending. And I mean that in the best way. Once you get through the gnarly floating-brain-in-a-basin set-up, you’re left with a dark sci-fi story that I would love to have written. Am writing a bunch of off-beat stories around a twisted cryonics company and this would have been a wildly fun starting point.
I could keep going…but you’d have a list of pretty near every story in the book. A small handful are weaker than others (that always happens). But most of the stories are short, so even if you don’t like one, you’re not out much time and Dahl will stick an unusual idea in your head for your trouble.
I can’t recommend this book enough. I want to buy dozens and dozens of copies and throw them at people; at people I know, strangers on the train, random folks on the sidewalk… It’s the right blend of dark/twisted and riotously funny. Oh, I’ve forgotten to mention “The Visitor”! In it, Uncle Oswald, a famed lothario is taken in by a kindly man while his car is being repaired in the middle of the desert. Being something of a bad guest, and an epic lover, Oswald sets his sights on his host’s wife. And daughter.
Overall: 4.9 The entertainment value provided by this little book cannot be overstated. Read it!
Note: This edition is of spotty quality; there are a number of typos and the book jumps between fonts (absently, not artistically). Perhaps recent printings have fixed this?