My wife had trouble falling asleep without the TV on when we married four years ago, but we couldn’t afford cable and I didn’t cotton to the idea of falling asleep in the glow of a laptop screen. So we started reading each other bedtime stories, specifically ones by Roald Dahl.
If you’re not familiar with Dahl’s adult stories, many of which appeared in Playboy and The New Yorker, just think of the scenes in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Violet turns into a blueberry or Augustus falls into the chocolate river—only a few shades darker. Topics of Dahl’s grown-up stories include spousal murder, the birth of Adolf Hitler and a man who stakes his own pinky finger in a poolside bet.
Dahl’s adult stories are, above all, wicked. The protagonists are often demented sadists, and the endings favor unexpected twists. Read a couple and you’ll start to feel like a dirty old man. Read a few more and you’ll begin to ponder where our wicked urges come from in the first place.
This, I believe, is the point of reading stories like Dahl’s: to stare into the void in ourselves, to recognize our own capacity for destruction and to come away a better person for it. Or maybe it’s just morbid curiosity.
Maybe that’s the same thing.
In his 2012 treatise Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, English professor Eric G. Wilson makes the case that morbid curiosity, which he describes as “an eager, open-minded interest in the macabre—disease or destruction or death” is a “special invitation to think about life’s meanings.”
Wilson argues that dark interests, including horror films and even websites that sell the ephemera of serial killers, ought not to be considered taboo. “For this kind of curiosity to yield meditative fruit,” he writes, “the imagination must be active … as the median between voyeurism, on the one hand, and confusion, on the other, between too far and too close, whole and part.”
Consider the case of “Nunc Dimittis,” Dahl’s tale of a nasty old man and his plot of revenge against a love interest who called him a bore. The man, an art collector named Lionel Lampson, learns about a trendy London painter who does portraits of old women in the nude and then paints subsequent layers of undergarments and clothing. Lionel clandestinely hires the painter to approach his love interest, Janet de Pelagia, and ask her to be a model, to which she agrees. Lionel then acquires the painting, carefully scrapes off the top clothing layer and holds a dinner party to show off the portrait of Janet in her girder and brassiere.
Lionel is pure id with an unlimited budget. Perfectly lecherous and consummately boyish, he literally jumps on his bed with glee as he hatches his plan. “A curious way to behave, you may say, for a man such as me,” he says, “to which I would answer—no, not really, if you consider the circumstances.”
It’s no accident that Dahl was a friend of the painter Francis Bacon, whose portraits featured bodies in anguish, their contorted flesh often laid out like meat on display. In Dahl’s stories, the human body is meat ready to be chopped up, dissected or ogled. But his dry wit and fantastic imagination balance out the shock, keeping us, as Wilson wrote, “between too far and too close.”
My wife is pregnant with twins now, and we’ll have to consider what stories to read to our children—and when to graduate them from, say, The BFG to “The Wish.” The latter tale features a boy making his way across a carpet, avoiding the red parts, which are hot coals, and the black parts, which are pits of poisonous snakes.
If I had read “The Wish” as a boy, I might have developed an obsessive fear of black carpet. As an adult, I read it and am reminded of the terrors of being young, when the imagination invented weird horrors and the presence of an adult was a better comfort than a rational explanation that the carpet wasn’t really swarming with vipers.
It’s not a story for my daughter or son; it’s a story to make me a better dad.