ESSAY: How Roald Dahl’s ‘Kiss Kiss’ Created a Strange Mind by Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley, author of The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives, explores the influence that Roald Dahl’s short stories have had on her work, and particularly ‘Ear to Ear’, from the forthcoming second volume of weird and eerie journal The Shadow Booth.

The first story in Kiss Kiss, Roald Dahl’s 1960 collection of short stories, is called ‘The Landlady’. When I first read it – at the age of eleven or twelve, I think – I didn’t understand it, and it bothered me so much that I thought about it a lot, puzzling away at it. For different reasons, I still think about it now.

(I’m about to spoil ‘The Landlady’, so maybe give it a quick read if you haven’t come across it before, if possible.)

A lodger turns up at a house, and takes a room. The landlady makes him tea, and talks gently about other lodgers who have stayed there before. Their names sound familiar to him, but he can’t place them. The landlady practices taxidermy on old pets, and the tea she serves smells of bitter almonds. She remarks on how the skin of one of the previous handsome male lodgers was blemish-free.

Nothing much happens within the life of the story itself.

Nowadays, with a mind filled over the years with strange, uncomfortable stories both real and fictitious, I know what probably happened next to that lodger. When I was younger, I wasn’t certain. I had suspicions, but the idea of a story not having a happy ending was new to me. Stranger still was the idea that a story didn’t have to have an ending at all, happy or sad, in the sense of providing an immediate resolution. My mind continued to work after that story. It goes on working, even though I have more insight into the smaller clues, such as the tea that smells of bitter almonds. Something bad was happening, and would continue to happen.

Many of Dahl’s stories in Kiss Kiss are about the unfolding of the awful. Sometimes this comes with a sense of comeuppance (such as in the wonderful nastiness of ‘William and Mary’) and sometimes with a strong whiff of inevitability (which you can find in the ‘true story’, ‘Genesis and Catastrophe’). There’s no limit to how far Dahl is prepared to go into unpleasantness, including territory we might classify as science fiction or fantasy, or outright horror. He’s not curtailed by any sense of realism beyond the way he underpins by displaying dialogue in plain and familiar rhythms, most of the time. Doctor/patient conversations or the way married couples relate to each other are marked with a banality. I always liked the way Dahl would then, occasionally, move into excited statements from his characters, in which he would deploy exclamation marks and italics. (Try ‘Royal Jelly’ for both ultimate bizarreness and the tricks of his dialogue.)

I think that was what captivated me about the stories – the combination of the recognisable and the inexplicable. To return to that very first story, the landlady bears a lot of character traits that I associated with elderly relatives in children’s novels: she spoke softly, and had a twinkle in her blue eyes. She made a lot of tea, using a pot, and talked about how lovely young people were. This was a character I knew well, except that this time around she scared me. Dahl hinted at a different agenda tucked away, underneath the safe exterior she presented, and although I couldn’t articulate it I knew it was dangerous. It raised the question in my mind – were other familiar people also hiding disturbing secrets and behaviours?

These were possibilities I itched to uncover. And I’ve been reading and writing about such things to scratch that itch for a long time.

I read Volume One of Tales from the Shadow Booth when it was published in 2017 and immediately thought of Dahl’s stories. Perhaps it was because of the title, with that hint of the television series that translated many of Dahl’s stories to the screen in the 1970s and ’80s: Tales of the Unexpected. Perhaps it was because of stories such as Malcolm Devlin’s ‘Moths’, that captures a moment when an unremarkable event becomes an inescapable horror. I knew I wanted to be part of Volume Two, and was delighted when my story ‘Ear to Ear’ was accepted.

Ear to Ear’ is about a father and daughter who run a butcher’s shop in a small town. The locals all know each other and inhabit a community that seems very safe; there’s a book club and a dental surgery and all the kind of things one would expect to find. But these people don’t agree on one important issue that affects the butcher’s daughter, and their different solutions to her problem create a disturbing outcome.

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Volume Two of Tales from the Shadow Booth is now available to pre-order via IndieGogo. It describes itself as a journal of the weird and eerie, and certainly ‘Ear to Ear’ fits within that description. I don’t think that all of Roald Dahl’s stories would belong in those categories – for instance, Kiss Kiss also contains the original short story that was later reworked by Dahl to become the children’s novel Danny, The Champion of the World, and twist-in-the-tale classics such as ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ and ‘The Way Up to Heaven’. Dahl is, to me, an author who created his own style of strange, no matter what genre he wrote in.

I didn’t set out to write specifically like Dahl, and I never have, but he’s undoubtedly an influence that I see around me, and find in my own stories. In ‘Ear to Ear’ I can spot him in the way the familiar becomes unsettling, and in the grounding dialogue between friends and families; these conversations can leave so much room for strangeness to take root, and grow. He’s certainly in the way I tried to give the suggestion of life beyond the story – a life that springs from events within the narrative, and yet hopefully takes the reader by surprise. Stories that invade your mind and refuse to leave are still my goal. After all, ‘The Landlady’ did exactly that to me.

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The Shadow Booth is a new journal of weird and eerie fiction edited by Dan Coxon. Volume 2 is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo until 18 May, and includes stories by Aliya Whiteley, Mark Morris, Kirsty Logan, Gareth E. Rees, Chikodili Emelumadu, Johnny Mains, Anna Vaught and many more. Please show you support and order a copy by clicking here.

Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley’s last two speculative fiction novellas, published in the UK by Unsung Stories, have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award and John W. Campbell Award. Her next novel, The Loosening Skin, will be published in October 2018. She has a website at aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com, and can be found on Twitter as @AliyaWhiteley.

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