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Can you identify the stories synopsized below and also name the authors who wrote them?


A woman murders her philandering husband by striking him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the evidence and serves it to the police who are investigating the crime.


A mysterious stranger bets a gambler that the latter can’t ignite his cigarette lighter ten consecutive times without a malfunction. If the gambler wins, he claims the stranger’s Cadillac. If he loses, the stranger takes his finger which he’ll hack off with a knife.


A boy takes a tour of a chocolate factory owned by the eccentric Willy Wonka where chewing gum always retains its flavor and the ice cream is cold even without refrigeration.


Agent 007, on assignment in Japan, prevents the international crime syndicate SPECTRE from igniting World War III by invading their volcano hideaway accompanied by an army of sword-wielding ninja warriors.


Fans of the macabre would likely recognize the first two as “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man From the South,” short stories memorably adapted on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the latter in an episode featuring Peter Lorre and a pre-stardom Steve McQueen. The third can only be the classic children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which inspired two popular films. And James Bond fans know the last as the British secret agent’s fifth big-screen adventure, You Only Live Twice.


Even those who know the name of Roald Dahl and are familiar with his work may be surprised to discover that he was responsible for all of the above. 


More than two decades after his death, Roald Dahl is best-known as a children’s author whose books, such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, can be found in almost any elementary school classroom. But Roald Dahl was much more than that. He was also a war hero, a spy, a philanthropist, a husband and father, and a man who liked to shock people. He once passed around his femur, surgically removed during an operation, at a dinner party, and talked about circumcision at another, hugely enjoying the startled reaction of the other guests.


“Razzing people up,” the 6' 5" writer called it, and it was also a way to cut short the small talk that bored him. “Dahl always seemed to stir up some kind of controversy,” Kris Rasmussen, author of WonkaMania observed. “He would write or say outrageous, often hateful things, and then insist he was misunderstood and never meant any harm by his comments. For every nasty story I could find about him, there was also an anecdote about Dahl’s incredible kindness or generosity.” To his biographer, Jeremy Treglown, Dahl’s “behavior seems like that of someone who had been faced with a premature but permanent, and rather unconvincing, show of adulthood.” It may be the secret to his success as a children’s author. As he once said, “I laugh at exactly the same jokes that children laugh at and that’s one reason I’m able to do it.”


Roald Dahl was born September 13, 1916 in the Welsh town of Llandaff to Norwegian parents. The family was prosperous thanks to a ship-brokering business that his father co-owned, but tragedy struck Dahl at an early age. When he was four, his seven-year-old sister died of appendicitis. Only two months later, his grief-stricken father succumbed to pneumonia. His mother was pregnant at the time and would soon be left with the task of raising four children and two step-children on her own. 


His school days brought back painful memories of the cruel schoolmasters who disciplined students with a cane. “It wasn’t simply an instrument for beating you. It was a weapon for wounding.” In his memoir, Boy, Dahl writes of Mrs. Pratchett, the stern matron who oversaw the school: “We hated her and we had good reason for doing so.” Of the sadistic treatment he received, he said, “I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.”


The experience did not make him eager to continue his education at a university. “My mother asked me if I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge,” he told Justin Wintle, “but I said ‘No, I want to travel.’”


He was hired by the Shell Oil Company which sent him to Tanzania in East Africa, “selling oil to sisal planters and diamond miners, gold miners, and learning Swahili. I was there until September 1939 when war broke out.” Dahl decided to do his part for the war effort by joining the Royal Air Force where he became a fighter pilot. After suffering a fractured skull, a smashed hip and spinal injuries when making a forced landing in Libya, he recuperated in a hospital where “I was told I couldn’t fly anymore.”


Sent back to England, he was hoping to become a flying instructor, but fate intervened. Invited to dinner at an exclusive London club, he found himself sitting next to Harold Balfour, the second most important man in the RAF.  “Apparently he had liked me, and said he was sending me to Washington to be Assistant Air Attache.”


It wasn’t revealed until years after his death, but one of Dahl’s assignments in Washington was to spy on behalf of his homeland through the British Security Coordination network. It remains a mystery as to how valuable Dahl was as an intelligence operative, but Jennet Conant, author of The Irregulars, believes Dahl picked up a taste for lavish living at this time thanks to hobnobbing with important well-to-do people, many of them older women with whom he had affairs and showered him with gifts. Conant writes that “all Dahl had to do was keep up a cheerful front and eavesdrop his way through the yawning Sunday breakfasts, hunt breakfasts, luncheons, teas, tea dances, innumerable drinks parties, banquets and not infrequent balls.”


More importantly, his time in the U.S. was instrumental in his later career as a writer. As he recalled, “I suppose if I hadn’t gone I might never have written anything.”


It was pure chance that led Dahl to the career for which he is now celebrated. A man from the British Embassy who happened to be the English novelist, C. S. Forester, was interviewing fellow countrymen about their war experiences for a series of articles in The Saturday Evening Post.  “I started to tell him, but the story began to get a bit bogged down,” Dahl recalled, “so I said, ‘Look, would it help if I scribbled this out in the evening and posted it on?’”


A week later, a check for $1000 arrived with a letter from Forester explaining that the Post liked the story just the way Dahl wrote it and would publish it under his name. Surprised, Dahl wrote another story, then another, all of them finding acceptance by major American periodicals. Once the war ended, Dahl began to concentrate on writing fiction, selling numerous stories, most of them to The New Yorker.


With the encouragement of friends, he moved to New York to be closer to his editors. As his byline became more familiar, he received a call from Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher, who expressed interest in collecting Dahl’s stories into book form. Someone Like You appeared under the prestigious Knopf imprint in 1953. By then, Dahl had met actress Patricia Neal at a dinner party. She was ten years younger, and had fled a Hollywood career following a love affair with the married Gary Cooper, her co-star in a film version of Any Rand’s hefty novel, The Fountainhead. She later admitted that she wasn’t in love with him, but observed that Dahl “knew exactly what he wanted and he quietly went about getting it. I did not yet realize, however, that he wanted me.” They were married in 1953, and soon resettled in England where they would start a family that would grow to include five children.


However, the 30-year marriage would be marked by tragedy. In 1950, their son, Theo, would suffer a brain injury at the age of four months when his carriage was struck by a taxi. Then, in 1962, they would lose their daughter, Olivia, to a fatal case of measles. She was seven-years-old, the same age at which Dahl’s sister died. Shortly after winning an Oscar as best actress for 1963's Hud, Neal suffered a debilitating stroke. Dahl’s tough-love approach to nursing her back to health was unusual at the time but has since been adopted by the medical profession. She also benefitted from a device that Dahl invented with neurosurgeon Kenneth Till and toy designer Stanley Wade that drained fluid from the brain. Known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, it was created after the shunt used during Theo’s operations kept clogging. Dall was “very knowledgeable,“ Till said, and “had the coolness - I think this perhaps is the word - to know the pros and cons, the whys and wherefores.” Exported throughout the world, the valve would be used to treat as many as 3,000 children.


The real-life drama of Neal’s illness and recovery became the basis for Barry Farrell’s book, Pat and Roald, which in turn became a 1983 television film with Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl. Ironically, by the time the film was in production, the marriage was ending due to Dahl’s infidelity.


Through it all, he continued writing. To Noel Coward, Dahl’s short stories were “brilliant and his imagination is fabulous. Unfortunately there is in all of them, an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness, and a curiously adolescent emphasis on sex.”


Although he dashed off many of his war time reminiscences, and later admitted that he “was making them up in the end,” he meticulously crafted his short stories, taking as long as six months on a single tale, “working every morning, six or seven days a week, from ten until lunchtime, and again in the afternoon from four until six.” It was an unusually long time to spend on a story, but he insisted it was “the only way I can get them halfway decent.” It was a lucrative profession, but a stressful one. “A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.”


In 1961, he did what Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling had done so successfully, and turned to television with an anthology series focusing on the weird and eerie. Way Out ran for a half-hour on CBS from March through July, preceding Twilight Zone on Friday evenings. “The host is Roald Dahl,” reported The Plain Dealer. “He is pretty spooky, too.”


It was around this time that he began the most successful phase of his career, as the author of children’s books.


“What the hell am I writing this nonsense for?” he wondered as he was working on James and the Giant Peach.  


“I believe Dahl used his children’s stories as a means to attempt to reconcile his own pain,” Kris Rasmussen said. “In his stories he could do what he could not do in real life – create a happy-ever-after ending.” Dahl himself never suggested his personal pain inspired his work, only saying that the apple trees around his home gave him the idea for his first children’s book. “(T)here are a lot of apple trees around here,” he said in an interview published in Revolting Rhymes, “and you can watch them through the summer getting bigger and bigger from a tiny little apple to bigger and bigger ones, and it seemed to me an obvious thought - what would happen if it didn’t stop growing?” He decided on a peach for his story because “it’s pretty and it’s big and it’s squishy and you can go into it and it’s got a big seed in the middle that you can play with.”


By the time he was creating his children’s stories, Dahl was retreating to a hut in the back of the house where he would write while seated in an armchair. He never had a desk. “Roald had invented his own writing board covered in green felt,” Neal wrote in her autobiography, “which he put on his lap as a writing surface.” Before turning Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox into a 2009 movie, director Wes Anderson asked the author’s widow for a tour of the location.


“There is a gigantic beech tree at the end of a fox run, which I immediately recognized from The Fantastic Mr. Fox” Anderson wrote in The New York Times. Allowed to browse through Dahl’s archive of original manuscripts, Anderson “felt as if I were in his presence.”


The most popular of Dahl’s stories may be 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, inspired by the author’s fondness for chocolate, a subject on which he was an expert. In the 1930s, he noted, “all the great classic chocolates were invented: the Crunchie, the Whole Nut bar, the Mars bar, the Black Magic assortment, Tiffin, Caramello, Aero, Malteser, the Quality Street assortment, Kit Kat, Rolo, and Smarties. In music, the equivalent would be the golden age when compositions by Bach and Mozart and Beethoven were given to us.”


Reviewing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in The New York Times, Aileen Pippett described Dahl’s strengths as a children’s author: “Fertile in invention, rich in humor, acutely observant, he depicts fantastic characters who are recognizable as exaggerations of real types, and situations only slightly more absurd than those that happen daily, and he lets his imagination rip in fairy-land.”


Although his children’s books were often as macabre as his short stories, Dahl tried to avoid frightening his young readers by refraining from vivid descriptions and sprinkling the horror with humor. “Children who got crunched up in Willy Wonka’s chocolate machine were carried away and that was the end of it. When the parents screamed, ‘Where has he gone?’ and Wonka said, ‘Well, he’s gone to be made into fudge,’ that’s where you laugh, because you don’t see it happening, you don’t hear the child screaming or anything like that ever, ever, ever.”


He also believed subtlety was a hindrance to writing effective fiction for children.  “I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel.”


Reflecting on his contributions to the genre a year before his death, Dahl said his books “are not going to teach them anything at all, except to grip them by the throat and make them love to read. To me, that’s very important.”


Children, encouraged by their teachers, sent Dahl thousands of letters, and Dahl wrote them back, often including the following poem:


“Dear children from across the sea,
How nice of you to write to me.
I love to hear the things you say
when you are miles and miles away.
All children, and I think I’m right,
Are nicer when they’re out of sight.”


Children’s writer Anthony Horowitz told the BBC that Dahl’s books were unique because “Dahl was perhaps the first author to take the children’s side and collude against the smelly, ugly, stupid creatures that inhabit the adult world.” Dahl himself said, “It’s the path to their affections. Parents and school teachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” His books did not delight everyone, however. Some found them anti-social, anti-feminist, and violent. But as he observed, “I never get any protests from children. All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like.”


The audience that made the James Bond movies as much of a phenomenon in the 1960s as the Beatles also liked to giggle and squirm, and the films gave them plenty of opportunities to do so with mind-boggling gadgets, violence leavened with humor, and hair-raising escapes from danger. Although Dahl once said that “if you’ve got enough money to live comfortably, there’s no reason in the world to do a screenplay,” he accepted an offer from Albert R. Broccoli, co-producer of the Bond films, to write the screenplay for the fifth entry in the series, You Only Live Twice.


“It was Ian Fleming’s worst book,” Dahl said, “with no plot in it which would even make a movie.” The producers agreed with Dahl’s judgment, and instructed him to craft a completely new story while retaining the Japanese locale and the formula they had perfected in the four previous entries.


“Bond has three women through the film: If I remember rightly, the first gets killed, the second gets killed and the third gets a fond embrace during the closing sequence. And that’s the formula.”


Dahl enjoyed the experience, saying “You Only Live Twice was fun to do. It was the only screenplay I’ve ever done which was fun.”


By the time the Bond film was released to great success in 1967, Dahl was writing another script for Broccoli, this time based on Ian Fleming’s children’s story about a flying car, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang. “I did the first draft after which they paid me off, to make way for the director, Ken Hughes, to do what he liked with it,” Dahl complained. “It was a disaster.”


Next, he was hired to adapt his own Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an experience he came to regret. “I did the screenplay, but it doesn’t matter. They changed it.” Another writer was brought in for revisions, one of his contributions being a shift in focus from one character to another, hence the change in title to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


There was a great demand for a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and in 1972, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator appeared. “I was a bit lucky in my timing with the second Charlie,” Dahl said. “One of the characters was an idiot President of the United States. Soon after the book came out, old Nixon started going off the rails.”


Dahl’s stories were increasingly popular with filmmakers, though the results did not always please him. He approved of a film based on Danny, the Champion of the World, but thought The Witches was merely a “stupid horror film” that was much too adult for children. The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), published in 1982, became an animated film seven years later, and was eventually followed by film versions of The Fabulous Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, and Tim Burton’s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka.  Matilda was also adapted as a film, and in 2010 inspired a musical commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.


At the time of his death on November 23, 1990, Dahl had sold over 100 million books worldwide, and they continue to sell and be read by children and adults alike.


The appeal his stories have for young readers was best summarized by his daughter, Lucy. “He understood children and identified with them.” His widow, Felicity, whom he married in 1983, said of his young audience, “They were his equals.”


Today, children and fans of all ages frequently stop by Dahl’s home in Buckinghamshire where his widow still lives. They excitedly ask if it’s true that Roald Dahl lived there, and she tells them, “Well, he did.” “Oh, has he moved?” they ask, and she tells them, “‘No, he died’ and it shatters them.”


But true to the title of that James Bond film he wrote, Dahl did live twice, maybe even more than that, and lives still in the hearts and imaginations of readers everywhere.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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