di Ludovica Di Costanzo (IVD)

Rigged bets over people’s lives or even body parts, marriages filled with tension and ended in extreme and cold-hearted actions, potentially lethal discoveries for the whole humankind just brushed under the carpet: these are just a few examples of the rather unique occurrences in “Tales of the Unexpected”, surely one of the most compelling Roald Dahl works.

The British writer, who started writing after being injured while serving as a pilot in the British army during World War II, is better known for his worldwide celebrated children’s books that have conquered a special place in young readers’ hearts for their uncanny and unusual stories that seem to keep up even with kids’ creativity.

This peculiar narrative can also be found in Dahl’s adults’ written production, especially in the short stories Dahl has written: over 60 throughout his whole career. These were later divided in collections among which “Tales of the Unexpected” stands out in terms of success and contents: published as a proper book in 1979, the collection contains 24 stories that were written individually decades ahead and immediately reached an extraordinary fame; indeed, shortly after their publication, some of them even inspired episodes of the iconic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”.

“Tales of the Unexpected” is a perfect prototype of Dahl’s narrative because it showcases a slow-paced writing style thriving with details and the theme of its stories revolve around sudden, drastic and sinister changes that completely upturn the environments whereby they take place, which are mostly everyday life situations the average reader is familiar with (households, social events, minor interactions). This characteristic manages to increase the feeling of danger, the thrill and the suspense of the narrative, as these events were to happen in front of our very eyes at any place and any moment, in totally unexpected circumstances. Such bizarre occurrences are generated either by the sinister intentions of the characters or the raving they’re reduced to.

These happenings are also never described explicitly, however, as the story goes on, the reader is perfectly able to picture in their mind all the sequences of events, allowing any part, no matter how gruesome it is, to be portrayed with such a captivating elegance. For example, in one of the most famous stories, “Skin”, the protagonist has a majestic tattoo on his back made by his best friend who passed years and years earlier. One day he happens to stumble upon an exhibition of his friend’s artworks during which he declares his friendship with the artist and shows the inedited work tattooed on his body to everyone. By doing so, he catches the attention of a collector who offers him a generous pay for just exposing his back to the world as it were an actual painting in a museum, which is soon accepted. The story comes to an end with nothing more than a newspaper article about a picture, meticulously framed, varnished and looking exactly the same as the man’s tattoo, being put up for sale. This ending lets the reader have a clear idea of what has been the destiny of the poor man but at the same time leaves a disturbingly large room for imagination. 

To sum up, like any other work of Dahl’s, “Tales of the Unexpected” is worth every minute spent reading for it is highly enjoyable even for today’s readers: this book is truly engaging, for it takes you inside the narrative and the more unsettling this gets, the more a visceral fear starts devouring you to a point that you look around, start scrutinizing what surrounds you until you are brought to ask yourself: “Could this actually happen to me?”. Nevertheless, no matter how strong your shivering is, there is nothing that will withdraw you from the tantalizing power these stories hold onto you. Even though it now seems to have become “old”, the total fiction narrated in this masterpiece is the source of extremely genuine sensations for the readers, which is something we hardly get to see nowadays.

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