CRUEL CHARACTERS

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Okay, I know what you’re thinking.Why would a horror blog concentrate its latest installment on Roald Dahl, the esteemed author of numerous children’s books that include “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “Matilida” and “James and the Giant Peach”?

The answer is simple.Roald Dahl had a darker, sinister side he displayed in writings that were purposely steered away from innocent grade-school children toward a far different market – adults.Indeed, it is a macabre treat to experience the adult version of Dahl.The writings are predominantly short stories, consistently fun to read, and all deliver a sinister punch.

No person should be surprised at Dahl’s incredible talent for creating compelling stories with equally cruel characters.The character of Willy Wonka still conjures memories of controlled insanity and psychosis in my middle-aged mind.Or take the evil sisters in “James And The Giant Peach” who display a fascinating combination of ego, rage and fanatical control issues.

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To Dahl, his antagonists had to be not only evil but sinister and cruel.He never ceased to display this rare talent – even in his over-the-top depiction of Blofeld in his screenplay of the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice”.

Take my favorite Dahl story, “The Man From the South”.A young American soldier is on leave at a Jamaica hotel when a stranger approaches him.The stranger (who speaks in an odd accent) is dressed in white – shirt, tie, and even hat – oddly reminiscent of Mr. Roarke from TV’s “Fantasy Island”.It seems the stranger is fascinated in particular with the soldier’s deft operation of his Zippo cigarette lighter.He asks the soldier if he’s always able to light the Zippo and is thrilled with the answer.The soldier responds that the lighter has never failed to erupt its flame.

The stranger, noticing the cockiness of the American, baits the young soldier with a bet:If he can light the Zippo ten times in a row he’ll win his prized Cadillac.The soldier responds that it’s a generous bet but has nothing to wager himself.The stranger corrects him; he indeed has something to wager – the little finger of his right hand.

After considering the gleaming Cadillac and his trusted lighter, the soldier agrees to the bet.The story cuts to the stranger’s hotel room.He prepares the soldier by tying his right hand to a cutting board, exposing the pinky finger.With a sharpened meat cleaver raised into the air, the bet begins.

The soldier lights the Zippo the first time with ease.But with each subsequent try, the soldier begins to sweat.He begins to wonder what will happen if the lighter fails?What would be the pain of a severed digit be like?Would there be a lot of blood?Would he scream?

Approaching the eighth turn, the soldier is starting to shake.His free hand is now moist with nervous anticipation and his breath is shallow, pained.The lighter does its thing and it’s now “all in”.The final turn.

When the suspense of the story reaches its apex, the hotel room door suddenly bursts open and a woman has a shocked expression on her face.It turns out that she’s the stranger’s wife and immediately unties the soldier and profusely apologizes to him about her husband’s behavior.She explains that her husband pledged long ago to cease his despicable habit of creating these kinds of betting situations.She continues by stating that her husband no longer has a penny to his name.Everything now belongs to her, including the Cadillac.

As the confused soldier leaves he pauses at the door and turns to regard the couple.The stranger’s wife is waving goodbye – the only digit on her right hand being her thumb.

Now that’s what I call a sinister tale.

“Man From the South” was filmed for television in 1960 as Episode 168 of the cult classic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.It was later remade for the premiere episode of “Tales of the Unexpected” that aired in 1979.

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Roald Dahl was born in Wales in 1916 and became a writer after his discharge from the Royal Air Force during World War II.Upon reaching fame with his children’s stories that were popular around the globe, Dahl married the movie star Patrica Neal who was known to have been the long-time mistress of actor Gary Cooper.

Roald Dahl died in 1990.

This humble blogger urges you to experience the writing of Roald Dahl.There’s no better read on a storm-driven night alone.

Recommended short story collections by Dahl:

“Over To You”

“Kiss, Kiss”

“Switch Bitch”

“Tales of the Unexpected”

“The Roald Dahl Omnibus”

Until next time. . .

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