The dark, disturbing Roald Dahl stories Netflix wouldn’t dare touch

·8 min read
Streaming giant Netflix has acquired the rights to the complete works of Roald Dahl - Getty Images
Streaming giant Netflix has acquired the rights to the complete works of Roald Dahl - Getty Images

For three years, Netflix has been eyeing up a chunkier slice of the Roald Dahl pie. This week, it went and bought the whole bakery: a joint statement from the streaming giant and the late author’s estate announced the creation of a “unique universe across animated and live action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theatre, consumer products and more.”

Netflix, it is understood, now has access to Dahl’s entire body of work. How much it paid for it is anyone’s guess – a 2018 deal licensing 16 works, comprising 19 novels (including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which Taika Waititi is currently turning into a show), three short story collections, and 12 TV or film scripts, is rumoured to have cost $100 million.

So, as Ted Sarandos et al plunge their hands in the cookie jar, what gems might they find? The possibilities are tantalising. The Dahl canon is full of deliciously dark tales that rarely see the light of day and are crying out for on-screen treatment. What a brilliantly weird job Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker could do revamping, for instance, his disturbing story collection Tales of the Unexpected, which was so memorably first brought to TV in the 1970s.

In a duller reality, though, it’s hard to imagine Netflix taking a punt on the wackier, weirder works when they have such easy, crowd-pleasing children’s favourites in Wonka, Matilda, and the BFG to play with. But let’s just imagine, for a minute, that they might. Here are Dahl’s 10 most disturbing creations.

Someone Like You

This 1953 collection contains some of Dahl’s greatest and most macabre stories. In Skin, an impoverished tattoo artist resorts to selling the skin off his back; in Neck, an adulterous wife who manages to get her head stuck in a piece of sculpture cowers in fear as her cuckolded husband, egged on by their butler, prepares to “free” her by wielding an axe. The best of the collection is Lamb to the Slaughter, an ingenious tale in which a pregnant housewife murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then destroys the evidence by roasting it and serving it to the investigating policeman.

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

This apocalyptic fantasy for adults was the first novel to depict nuclear warfare. Dahl’s descriptions of London after the blast, particularly a barbecued double-decker bus, are powerful: “Through the open glassless windows… the bus was full of people, all sitting in their places, silent, immobile, as though they were waiting for the bus to start again. But their faces were scorched and seared and half-melted and all of them had had their hats blown off their heads so that they sat there baldheaded, scorch-skinned, grotesque, but very upright in their seats. Up in front, the black-faced driver was... looking straight in front of him through the empty sockets of his eyes.”

The book was published in 1948 to tepid reception in the United States and Britain, and Dahl tried to forget all about it. When a new edition was later proposed, Dahl snapped: “Why in God’s world anybody should want to paperback that ghastly book I don’t know.” But as a Cold War curiosity, it has ample merit for a second run.

Netflix has already commissioned an animated version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Alamy Stock Photo
Netflix has already commissioned an animated version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Alamy Stock Photo

Kiss Kiss

This 1960 collection features such grim pleasures as William and Mary, a sci-fi story about a man with a terminal diagnosis who agrees to let a doctor transplant his brain into a vat of liquid after death, and link it up to one of his eyes. After his death, his widow Mary discovers that she prefers the helpless brain to her former husband. The story ends with her blowing cigarette smoke (a habit he hated) into his eye. Other horrifying highlights include The Landlady, about a boarding house owner who poisons and then stuffs helpless schoolboys, and Royal Jelly, in which a newborn baby transforms gradually into a bee.

Switch Bitch

Originally published in Playboy, the Switch Bitch stories are all about sexual deception and manipulation. In The Great Switcheroo, two men decide to liven up suburban life by devising a ploy to sleep with each other’s wives; in The Last Act, an embittered former lover plots violent revenge on a grieving widow. Critics have found these stories crude and misogynistic – any contemporary screen treatment would require some hefty revisions.

The Swan

This story in the 1977 collection, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, is about the violent bullying of a schoolboy by a pair of cruel friends. They shoot him in the leg with a rifle, tie him to train tracks, then force him to leap from a tree, dressed in the wings of a mutilated swan.

Dahl is better known for his work as a children’s author, rather than for his science-fiction or horror stories
Dahl is better known for his work as a children’s author, rather than for his science-fiction or horror stories

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

Illustrated by Quentin Blake, and written for the British Railway Board, this gruesome 1991 pamphlet is the pinnacle of Dahl’s delight in the cautionary tale – children step on railway lines and are zapped black and yellow by the voltage, or lose their heads out of train windows. Disingenuously, Dahl begins by saying he has never moralised before (what price, Veruca Salt?) but, more believably, that he sympathises with the temptation to misbehave: “I can remember exactly what it was like. I am certain I can.”

Beware of the Dog

Found in Dahl’s first collection, Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, published in 1946, this story stands out for its dark themes amid the slightly blander early Dahl fare. When his plane is shot down during the Second World War, an RAF fighter pilot wakes up in a hospital bed in Brighton. But gradually, there is a creeping realisation that the setting is a sham and he is in fact a prisoner in Vichy France. It’s a psychologically disturbing twist.

Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts

Dahl’s largely forgotten comic verses are among his most darkly funny writings. Revolting Rhymes, published in 1982, parodies traditional folk and fairy tales; Snow White is a crooked gambler, Goldilocks a filthy squatter who gets into bed with her shoes on; and a street-wise Little Red Riding Hood skins the Big Bad Wolf and wears his pelt as a cloak. Dirty Beasts is about farmyard friends: a pig who eats his farmer, rather than be eaten himself, and a crocodile who eats six children each Saturday, preferably three boys (who he smears with mustard to make them peppery) and three girls (who he dips in butterscotch and caramel for sweetness).

Dahl did not shy away from the grim or gory when it came to his work for adults - Shutterstock
Dahl did not shy away from the grim or gory when it came to his work for adults - Shutterstock

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life

This collection, made up of several of Dahl’s stories published in various magazines in the 1940s and 50s, depict the exploits of rural cheats and knaves. The stories were inspired by the time Dahl spent at his mother’s house in Great Missenden. They begin with the dark wisdom of a farmer who boasts a fail-safe way to fix the gender of calves. Dahl, a bit of a rural cheat and knave himself, had befriended a local butcher, Claud, and together they embarked on a life of small-time criminality. “We shared a love of trying to acquire something by stealth without paying for it. By this I don’t mean common-or-garden thievery. We would never have robbed a house or stolen a bicycle. Ours was the sporting type of stealing. It was poaching pheasants or tickling trout… There is a delicious element of risk.”

That tang runs through these tales of sly antiques dealers, rat catchers, unlicensed greyhound racers and maggot farmers: “Easiest thing in the world to run a maggot-factory… All you need is a couple of old oil drums and a few lumps of rotten meat or a sheep’s head, and you put them in the oil drums and that’s all you do. The flies do the rest.”

My Uncle Oswald

Published in 1979, the year when Tales of the Unexpected was first broadcast on television, My Uncle Oswald could be dismissed as the puerile fantasy of a dirty old man. It’s all that, but so outrageous, so silly and so brilliant in its caddish telling that it’s impossible not to forgive it. The story purports to be an extract – “word for word as he wrote it” – from the diary of the narrator’s uncle, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius: “the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt the greatest fornicator of all time.”

In this fictional memoir, Oswald, a Cambridge undergraduate, sets out to make his fortune. The plan involves a young beauty, Yasmin Howcomely (“a creature of such dazzling loveliness that I refused to believe she was a Girton girl”), a vicious aphrodisiac culled from the Sudanese blister beetle, and the greatest men of the early 20th century. Oswald harvests sperm from Proust, Freud, Puccini, Picasso, Einstein and Bernard Shaw, to name but a few, then freezes it to sell to wealthy wives who long to give birth to a genius. Not one for your maiden aunt, but joyously naughty, with a sting in the tail.