Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl. I know this because my son just came home with a permission slip that I need to sign so that he's allowed to watch 'Matilda' as part of the celebrations at school. I actually snort-laughed when I saw the slip, which is necessary for the movie's PG rating, not because my son has already seen it 700 times but because my childhood experience of Roald Dahl was far from PG rated.
My father, a raving book-lover, had a cavernous library. With English as his second language, he reveled in authors that pushed boundaries and truly used their imagination, thus challenging his understanding. Hence his fascination with the horror genre.
His horror novels sat in a darkened corner of his library; a corner which, of course, I would only venture near in my bravest moments. Okay, actually, I never went -- I made my youngest sister fetch me books from the 'evil' section, and reading this article will be the first time she knows about it, because she was only five or six at the time.
Along with Stephen King's IT, The Exorcist, The Omen, Flowers in the Attic, The Shining and Rosemary's Baby, sat a massive book with Roald Dahl's name on it. It was his complete works... of adult fiction. This tome was much more appealing to me than The Twits, which sat on my own bookshelf. I was fascinated by the potential of what Dahl could be writing about that motivated my father, who permitted me to watch Hitchcock's 'Psycho' with him when I was eight, to store it on a high shelf.
I read Dahl's complete adult works, containing the short story compilations of Switch Bitch and Kiss Kiss, when I was about 12 years old. It was completely, utterly and totally inappropriate for my impressionable mind. Put it this way -- there were no Quentin Blake illustrations. If there had been, the book would have looked more like the Kama Sutra, because most of Dahl's adult short stories were about S.E.X. (as I pronounced it in 1988).
All of the characters were generally a-holes to each other. They conned, murdered quite a bit, manipulated, swapped wives, neglected their children, committed adultery -- so many pages, so many taboos. The plots were macabre and thrilling. Brilliant under-my-blankets-with-a-torch reading.
Now, as an adult, I can tell you that Dahl gleefully romps through the intimate details of each story, which all culminate in a twist impossible to predict. And his language, as it is with his children's stories, is sophisticated and alive -- but even more so, because every story is definitely for people who already know the world is no Wonka factory. Dahl's adult work could almost be considered black comedy, because it's such a true reflection of human nature -- which ultimately is its greatest appeal.
But as a 12-year-old, it was simply a secret world that I knew I shouldn't have been in. It definitely helped turn me into a cynic about marriage for a while, because the politics and vicissitudes of marriage are the underlying themes in many of the stories. But don't think for a second the stories are depressing -- they are far from it. It's apparent that Dahl relishes his adult storytelling, and you can almost imagine the glint in his eye as he wrote each wicked tale.
Decades later, my book club read some of Dahl's adult fiction. Needless to say, it wasn't nearly as scintillating to me as a 38-year-old as it was to the 12-year-old me. Probably because I've actually now had sex (just that one time when I conceived my son, Mum, I promise). But we did discover that Dahl had originally written many of the stories for Playboy in the mid-'60s and '70s, which demonstrates how exciting, and badass, they must have been at the time.
So, on Roald Dahl Day, what would have been the writer's 100th birthday, I apologise if I have offended any of his child-fiction devotees with the truth about Dahl's 'deviant' mind. Maybe you'd prefer to watch 'Matilda' with my son -- and I suggest you keep the Playboy stories away from your 12-year-old child.