Title: Skin and Other Stories.
Author: Roald Dahl.
Genre: Fiction, literature, short stories.
Publication Date: 1946, 1953, 1959, 1986 (this collection 2000).
Summary: This collection compiles 11 short stories Dahl wrote for adults. In Skin (1953), when an old, impoverished man sees a picture by a very famous artist in a gallery window, he remembers that in his youth he had allowed the then starving artist to tattoo his back, but having an invaluable piece of art as an inextricable part of him proves to have sinister consequences. In Lamb to the Slaughter (1953), a jilted wife murders her husband and feeds the murder weapon to the investigating officers. In The Sound Machine (1953), Klausner invents a machine that allows him to hear noises that are inaudible to human (and, eventually, any) ear, but he makes a terrifying discovery about the nature of plants around him when he begins to harm them. In An African Story (1946), an old man living in the Highlands of Kenya shares his cow and his land with an unpredictable, mentally-ill young man, but after the young man kills the old man's dog and the old man discovers the shocking secret of who has been stealing his milk right out of the cow every morning, he hatches a devious plan to protect what he loves. In Galloping Foxley (1953), an elderly man, William Perkins, is shocked when not only does the new odd commuter disrupts his strict and comforting routine, but it turns out that the man is Foxley, a boy that used to terrorize Perkins in school. In The Wish (1953), a sinister story about the darker side of human nature, an imaginative boy plays a game with his carpet that quickly gets out of hand. In The Surgeon (1986), when a humble university surgeon saves the life of a Saudi Arabian prince, the prince presses upon him a rare and perfect diamond of immense value, but when the surgeon and his wife get burglarized during that same weekend, it's a shock to everyone where it turns up the very next day. In Dip in the Pool (1953), a man on a British cruise ship, William Botibol, bets all his savings on a pool that predicts the number of miles the ship will travel that day, but when it looks like he's going to lose he decides to do something drastic to slow the ship down. The Champion of the World (1959) centers on two men in the British countryside, Claud and Gordon, and the extraordinary method for poaching pheasants Gordon invents, which, unfortunately, turns out to have a minor flaw. In Beware of the Dog (1946), a WWII Spitfire pilot loses a leg and abandons his plane while flying above the English Channel, but when he wakes up at a hospital and is told he is in Brighton, he soon begins to suspect he may not actually be where he thinks he is. In My Lady Love, My Dove (1953), a couple invites another for a drink and a good game of Bridge and decides to play a cruel prank on their guests by wire-tapping their room, but what they hear is shocking and unexpected.
My rating: 7.5/10.
My review: Dahl is a solid writer, and that's the best way I can find to describe it. I find that I don't have an emotional attachment to his writing, as much as an objective admiration of his writing and story-telling skills. He writes a lot of characters I absolutely despise, something which I both like and dislike - again, objectively impressed at the skill it takes to do that, yet not wishing to stick with a lot of his characters for longer than absolutely necessary. I think part of my problem is I am absolutely biased by the sheer amount of horror stories that I read. With Bierce, Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, etc., I have grown to expect a little more of a twist (since Dahl is often lauded as the king thereof), though I do understand the collection is not horror parse. Skin creeped the hell out of me, simply because I had no idea what I was going to get with Dahl's "adult" stories, but somehow wasn't expecting quite that. The first part is eloquently laid out, and with the conception of the tattoo the reader get a heavy and disturbing premonition of the inevitable end, and I loved that as I read it it kept getting stronger and stronger, until I was rushing through the story in a morbid fascination even though I really didn't want to get there. And then the ending leaves a knot of disgust and deep disturbance in your stomach, showing something I strongly believe in - the things out there truly to be feared are not demons or ghosts or any such thing, but humans and their capacity for callous greed and cruelty. I absolutely loved A Lamb to the Slaughter. I love the contrast of the first part of the story, before the murder, and the second, although I enjoyed how the feeling of absolute peace and contentment, the love and affection she feels for her husband, almost gradually transitions to the scene of the murder and the cover-up, with the same calm and peaceful family feeling. And, of course, the simple method of disposal of the murder weapon is ingenious and amusing, making one applaud the crime more than condemn it (him being such a callous person in contrast to her "good wife" disposition certainly doesn't help). The Sound Machine seems to be especially relevant now, when research has actually shown that plants communicate with each other, and are conscious of being eaten or otherwise harmed. I would imagine this story would have made a lot more of an impression on me if I had read it when it was first written in the 50s. As it stands, I found the plot compelling but not particularly affecting, and Dahl actually broke the creepy atmosphere he'd built up when he had the tree attack Klausner when the latter took an ax to it. Even though I can see the necessity of something malicious and creepy to tie the story together and make it as creepy as he'd intended it, the sudden break from being plausible science fiction and jump to full out fantasy was not graceful and did not fit. I was sufficiently creeped out up to that point with the horrific sounds, if nothing else, that the author describes the plants making (a throatless, emotionless scream certainly teases the edges of morbid fascination), but once the tree pulled a Treebeard, it went from creepy to a bit silly.
An African Story gave me mixed feelings. Immediately, I was absolutely revolted and furious with the mentally-challenged character, and that, I am not going to lie, made me very uncomfortable with myself, even though he does kill a dog graphically. A graphic animal death is such a big trigger of mine that often something like that is enough to turn me off the story altogether. What follows, however, is so bizarre it's hypnotic. The image of the snake alone is somehow so
Galloping Foxley is a story I found psychologically fascinating. I blow like a grenade, immediately, when something gets to me, but I burn out quickly and am unable to hold on to anger or a grudge for longer than a day
The Wish is a pretty fascinating story. What I think struck me the most about it is that you find yourself doubting the realness of everything by the time you get to the end, which describes precisely the scope of a child's imagination, and how deeply disturbing and dark and masochistic is can often be. I enjoyed The Surgeon because it was an honest-to-doG good story. Solid, well-told, well-paced, amusing, satisfying. It wasn't "dark" and the twist didn't shock me, but as far as short stories go, I would bring this one as an example of a perfectly effective in its purpose piece of fiction. Dip in the Pool is probably the story that disturbed me the most from this collection. I have always had a lurking fear of swimming in places where I cannot see the bottom (I have a deep fascination with all the enormous things that live, used to live, and may still live under the water, which is honestly half terror). This is why there are few things I can imagine more horrifying than being stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the ocean. Dahl does a really apt job describing the irrationality of gamblers, and even though you know what the ending is going to be the moment Botibol hatches his scheme, it is somehow no less horrifying or uncomfortable when it actually happens. I usually wouldn't enjoy an ending I can so clearly see coming, but I suppose coupled with good story-telling, this story just taps into a kind of fear that persists in its effectiveness even when predictable.
The Champion of the World
Beware of the Dog is an interesting story to me, because I fully realize how fixed it is in historical context. It was well told, and my indifference to it showcases only my lucky lack of experience with warfare. The story lead up to a twist so effectively I couldn't wait to know what it was, and I felt myself deflate when I got to it. For a moment, I was intensely disappointed that this was it. However, taking into consideration that this story was written shortly after the war, and would have been read by people directly involved in it, I realize that to them this it would have been a justifiably, relevantly horrible twist. To be grievously crippled as a soldier and suddenly realize you have been captured by the opposite side (that side being the Nazis, no less), concurrently realizing the enemy has selected you to play some kind of covert mind-games, must indeed have been a very chilling note for people in that time, especially soldiers or their families. My Lady Love, My Dove was my least favourite story in the collection. I was over it almost immediately, the moment the despicable, unlikable characters materialized in their full glory. A wife who is an over-bearing shrew and a delusional and weak husband is in general a dynamic I'm not likely to enjoy. Aside from the characters being repellent, the ending of "They were cheating at cards" was ridiculously anti-climactic. I didn't miss the harsh societal criticism hiding in the fact that a rich couple decides to start cheating at cards for shits and giggles when inspired by one who only do this to make ends meet, but it didn't much move me.
♥ Slowly, methodically, they set about getting themselves drunk. The process was routine, but all the same there was a certain ceremony to be observed, and a gravity to be maintained, and a great number of things to be said, then said again—and the wine must be praised, and the slowness was important too, so that there would be time to savour the three delicious stages of transition, especially (for Drioli) the one when he began to float and his feet did not really belong to him. That was the best period of them all—when he could look down at his feet and they were so far away that he would wonder what crazy person they might belong to and why they were lying around on the floor like that, in the distance.
After a while, he got up to switch on the light. He was surprised to see that the feet came with him when he did this, especially because he couldn't feel them touching the ground. It gave him a pleasant sensation of walking on air.
♥ When the clock said ten minutes to five, she began to listen, and a few moments later, punctually as always, she heard the tires on the gravel outside, and the car door slamming, the footsteps passing the window, the key turning in the lock. She laid aside her sewing, stood up, and went forward to kiss him as he came in.
"Hullo, darling," she said.
"Hullo," he answered.
She took his coat and hunt it in the closet. Then she walked over and made the drinks, a strongish one for him, a weak one for herself; and soon she was back again in her chair with the sewing, and he in the other, opposite, holding the tall glass with both his hands, rocking it so the ice cubes tinkled against the side.
For her, this was always a blissful time of day. She knew he didn't want to speak much until the first drink was finished, and she, on her side, was content to sit quietly, enjoying his company after the long hours alone in the house. She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man, and to feel—almost as a sunbather feels the sun—that warm male glow that came out of him to her when they were alone together. She loved him for the way he sat loosely in a chair, for the way he came in a door, or moved slowly across the room with long strides. She loved the intent, far look in his eyes when they rested on her, the funny shape of the mouth, and especially the way he remained silent about his tiredness, sitting still with himself until the whiskey had taken some of it away.
~~Lamb to the Slaughter..
♥ Personally, I mistrust all handsome men. The superficial pleasures of this life come too easily to them, and hey seem to walk the world as though they themselves were personally responsible for their own good looks. I don't mind a woman being pretty. That's different. But in a man, I'm sorry, but somehow or other I find it downright offensive.
♥ The others at the table had become silent and were trying to hear, watching the purser with that intent, half-cocked, listening look that you can see also at the racetrack when they are trying to overhear a trainer talking about his chance: the slightly open lips, the upstretched eyebrows, the head forward and cocked a little to one side—that desperately straining, half-hypnotized, listening look that comes to all of them when they are hearing something straight from the horse's mouth.
♥ Mr. Botibol took a chair close to the auctioneer's table. He crossed his legs, folded his arms, and settled himself in his seat with the rather desperate air of a man who has made a tremendous decision and refuses to be frightened.
♥ "Any advance on two hundred pounds?"
Sit still, he told himself. Sit absolutely still and don't look up. It's unlucky to look up. Hold your breath. No one's going to bid you up so long as you hold your breath.
~~Dip in the Pool.
♥ Mr. Hazel's party took place on the first of October every year and it was a very famous event. Debilitated gentlemen in tweed suits, some with titles and some who were merely rich, motored in from miles around with their gun-bearers and dogs and wives, and all day long he noise of shooting rolled across the valley. There were always enough pheasants to go round, for each summer the woods were methodically restocked with dozens and dozens of young birds at incredible expense. I had heard it said that the cost of rearing and keeping each pheasant up to the time when it was ready to be shot was well over five pounds (which is approximately the price of two hundred loaves of bread). But to Mr. Hazel it was worth every penny of it. He became, if only for a few hours, a big cheese in a little world and even the Lord Lieutenant of the county slapped him on the back and tried to remember his first name when he said good-bye.
♥ I believe that all poachers react in roughly the same way as this on sighting game. They are like women who sight large emeralds in a jeweler's window, the only difference being that the women are less dignified in the methods they employ later on to acquire the loot. Poacher's arse is nothing to the punishment that a female is willing to endure.
~~The Champion of the World.