Friday, November 4, 2011

Three Audio Shorts From Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl hardly needs an introduction. James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda are just a few of the unsentimental and dark works written by the Welsh-born British author.

Recently, David Ivan Davies with One Voice Recordings has been quietly releasing short stories by Dahl with a remarkable effect since August. Davies, who has a masterful dramatic control over his voice, recently finished his ambitious narration project, nine collections of Sherlock Holmes.

Each Dahl short is unabridged, perfectly read, and carries an oral interpretation that becomes addictive. It's difficult to listen to a single story without wanting to add another and create a collection. While each audiobook varies in length depending on the story, they average about 25 minutes 35 minutes each.

Three samples from the growing collection of Dahl shorts. 

The Taste is a story about a dinner party where Richard Pratt makes a bet with Mike Schofield. The two men have always been fond of making small bets between each other, but Pratt decides to raise the stakes when he claims that he can guess, with all preciseness, the district, vineyard, and year the wine was made. The stakes: Schofield's daughter against two of Pratt's homes. (Ladies Home Journal, 1945.)

The Landlady is a story of a bright young man named Billy Weaver who chooses a bed and breakfast while traveling on business. The owner, a spooky middle-aged landlady, presents herself as incredibly generous, giving him an entire floor, anticipating his needs, and making him comfortable. Weaver, while never putting the pieces together himself, slowly makes connections that not everything is as it seems to be. (The New Yorker, 1959.)

The Man From The South is the story of Carlos, an little elderly South American man, who wagers a young American that the boy cannot strike his lighter ten times in a row. The boy suggests they bet a quarter or dollar, but the elderly man suggests higher stakes. He offers a Cadillac against the boy's little finger. (Adapted three times by Alfred Hitchcock, the first in 1960, and included as part of Four Rooms by Quentin Tarantino.)

The unabridged story is superior to the screenplay, especially in ambiance. The original begins on a Jamaican pool deck used by both locals and guests whereas the adaption begins in a hotel bar. However, the cast still makes the adaption a classic, with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. Here, in full.

As all three stories illustrate, Dahl was masterful at creating straightforward suspenseful shorts with amazingly vivid characters and unexpected endings, without any predictability that any story could easily turn for the protagonist or antagonist with the ease of a coin toss.

Like many of his stories (around 60 shorts; about 12 released on audio to date), Dahl frequently explored themes of identity, specifically focusing on how looks and reputation can be deceiving. He also enjoyed the randomness of gambling, with characters frequently challenged to test their own mettle. But perhaps even more than all that, he was one of the first to truly make ugly irresistibly beautiful.

A bit about one of the greatest British authors in history. 

Even at a young age, Dahl was described as a rock by his mother, who had inspired his early love for stories. Following in the footsteps of his father who kept a diary during the Great War, Dahl began his own at the age of eight. According to one of his early teachers, it didn't help. She said he was incapable of writing his thoughts on paper.

At 23, Dahl joined the Royal Air Force despite his considerable height (6 foot, 6 inches) at the outbreak of World War II. From the onset, he was assigned to one of the worst missions, flying the last biplane ever commissioned by the RAF and without any specialized training or combat instructions.

This experience led to his first published work, spurred on by the equally respected novelist Cecil Scott "C.S." Forester. Forester was living in the United States at the time, writing propaganda to convince America to join in the war. After serving as a pilot until suffering blackouts, Dahl met Forester when he was reassigned to intelligence.

Dahl's first piece ran in the Saturday Evening Post in 1942. His first children's book, The Gremlins, was published in 1943. The characters frequently appeared in animated Bugs Bunny shorts. Currently, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of James And The Giant Peach, check out an interactive website called Roald Dahl's Follow That Peach.

Three Shorts By Roald Dahl Roll To 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Of the three stories, only The Taste was never adapted for the screen. The Landlady was adapted, but with the addition of an opening and closing that disrupts the flow of the story and its lingering creepiness. The audiobooks are especially worth highlighting because David Ivan Davies lends a dramatic flair that would probably make Dahl and even (although unrelated) Hitchcock proud.

When you visit the shorts, do be wary of any bad reviews from folks who believe they only received the first chapter of a larger work. The stories are complete, unabridged, and while not a bargain at about $2 apiece, certainly worth every cent.

The Taste, The Landlady, and The Man From The South are all available on iTunes. Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl from Amazon includes all three stories plus dozens of others. It is one of the most complete collections ever published. Barnes & Noble carries another collection.
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