The following is an excerpt from Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A Little Nonsense Now and Then [Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, $19.95]:
Most fiction features danger of one sort or another. However, fiction edges toward the horror genre in accordance with the potential degree of harm, especially bodily harm, suffered by characters, the amount of detail lavished on the potential for harm, and the apparent likelihood that characters, especially main characters, will actually be harmed. That’s not a definition of “horror art,” but these are three good rules of thumb that will usually distinguish horror art from other genres. And by all three standards, Dahl’s work leans to the horrific.
In Dahl’s stories, children face potential death all the time. Willy Wonka’s factory is filled with ways for naughty children to die. Augustus Gloop, once he has tumbled into the lake of chocolate, is first in danger of drowning, then of being cut up and made into fudge. Veruca Salt is in danger of being burned to death, Violet Beauregarde of being squeezed to death, and Mike Teavee of suffering perhaps the most gruesome death possible—partial materialization. Good children are not much safer. Every wild ride Charlie takes in Wonka’s hurtling glass elevator is a gamble with his life, all the more so when carnivorous Knids or infectious Gnoolies await his arrival. Likewise, James Henry Trotter of James and the Giant Peach lives in danger of being drowned, eaten by sharks, murdered by the monstrous Cloud-Men, and falling hundreds of feet to his death in a spray of peach juice on the streets of New York. In The BFG it is revealed that hideous giants regularly raid our cities under the cover of night to eat “human beans,” especially children, while the unnamed child protagonist of The Witches faces the possible extermination of every child in England.
"The detail Dahl lavishes on the threats in his stories is striking, especially for children’s literature."
The detail Dahl lavishes on the threats in his stories is striking, especially for children’s literature. The threats in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may mostly be conveyed by suggestion, but the Oompa-Loompas never let an opportunity pass to ghoulishly elaborate in song about what each vanished child may be suffering: the predicted slicing, boiling, and transformation into fudge of Augustus Gloop, the possible death of Violet Beauregarde from being squeezed in the juicing room, the disgusting filth into which Veruca Salt is plunged as she hurtles into the rubbish furnace, and the possibility that Mike Teavee will remain inches tall for the rest of his life. The Oompa-Loompas may sometimes be lying (as may Wonka when he casually remarks on the likelihood of one of the children dying in some horrible way), but for all the reader can tell, they are speaking the truth. Their songs provide particularly dark little horror stories within the main narrative. If you took the Oompa-Loompas’ song about Augustus Gloop out of the novel and included it instead in Revolting Rhymes as an independent poem, it would become a straightforward story of a human being getting cut up and turned into food.
Likewise, in James and the Giant Peach, Dahl delights in giving frightening descriptions of encounters with alien life. When James first enters the peach, we’re told, “Every one of these ‘creatures’ was at leastas big as James himself, and in the strange greenish light that shone down from somewhere in the ceiling, they were absolutely terrifying to behold. ‘I’m hungry!’ the Spider announced suddenly, staring hard at James.” And upon first seeing the Cloud-Men, “it became obvious that these ‘things’ were actually living creatures—tall, wispy, wraithlike, shadowy, white creatures who looked as though they were made out of a mixture of cotton-wool and candyfloss and thin white hairs.” On further inspection, “James Henry Trotter, glancing up quickly, saw the faces of a thousand furious Cloud-Men peering down at him over the edge of the cloud. The faces had almost no shape at all because of the long white hairs that covered them. There were no noses, no mouths, no ears, no chins—only the eyes were visible in each face, two small black eyes glinting malevolently through the hairs.”
Similarly horrible descriptions are given of Vermicious Knids and the intangible Gnoolies in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator; evil humaneating giants like the Bloodbottler, Childchewer, and Fleshlumpeater in The BFG; and the haggish witches in The Witches. Dahl relates in loving detail the rashy pimpliness of the witches’ bald, scabby heads, their clawed hands and square, toeless feet, and the pale blue spittle clinging to their pointed teeth, set in gums that are “like raw meat.”
"It is knowing that terrible things happen to people in Charlie’s universe that gives the danger an edge."
Perhaps most powerfully, Dahl makes the danger in his tales seem real because the worlds he portrays are worlds in which terrible things happen to people. We already know that Charlie Bucket is vulnerable long beforehe steps into the chocolate factory, because of just how hard a life the author has already given him. Charlie is not just our eyes and ears in the novel but also our mouths and tummies, and we have been feeling him starve. Giving credibility to the danger of Wonka’s factory, it is made clear that Oompa-Loompas can and do suffer awful industrial accidents, being turned into blueberries, tumbling down the fudge mountain, or even floating away forever because they drank experimental “fizzy lifting drink” but failed to “do a great big long rude burp.” The Oompa-Loompas know how dangerous conditions are in Wonka’s factory: “Watching them, Charlie experienced a queer sense of danger. There was something dangerous about this whole business, and the Oompa-Loompas knew it. There was no chattering or singing among them here, and they moved about over the huge black camera slowly and carefully in their scarlet space suits.” Things only grow worse for them in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in which Wonka’s reckless experiments turn 131 Oompa-Loompas into minuses, to face the prospect of painful subtraction and long division in Minusland. They were probably safer back in the jungles of Loompaland, hiding in trees to escape the wangdoodles.
It is knowing that terrible things happen to people in Charlie’s universe that gives the danger an edge. The reader can believe that Augustus really might be slaughtered by the knives of the fudge machine and boiled into “Augustus-flavoured chocolate-coated Gloop,” that Veruca Salt really might be burned alive in the bowels of the rubbish furnace, that Mike Teavee really might stumble forth as half a person after being sent by television, spraying gore in all directions from his ruined body. In The Great Glass Elevator, Charlie listens as the Knids devour the passengers of a commuter shuttle in space: “The screams continued. They were so loud the President had to put his fingers in his ears. Every house in the world that had a television or radio receiver heard those awful screams. There were other noises, too. Loud grunts and snortings and crunching sounds. Then there was silence.”
In James and the Giant Peach, the horrible and meaningless death of innocent people is a recurring theme. James’s parents are snatched away from him when “Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.” The fact that rhinos don’t eat meat just underlines the arbitrariness of their deaths. For no good reason and without warning, James’s parents are suddenly lost forever: “They were dead and gone in thirty-five seconds flat.” Twice on the journey of the flying peach, Miss Spider breaks the narrative to tell a story of her own about the horrible death of a beloved relation, each a sentient spider like herself, at the hands of Aunt Sponge. Her father drowned when Sponge flushed him down the plughole of the bathtub, while her grandmother survived for six months stuck in paint upside down on the ceiling until she was crushed by Sponge’s mop.
In The BFG, the BFG assures Sophie, “Giants is all cannybully and murderful! And they does gobble up human beans!... Bonecrunching Giant crunches up two wopsey whiffling human beans for supper every night! Noise is earbursting! Noise of crunching bones goes cracketycrack for miles around!” Children are particularly likely to be eaten. The Queen notes regarding one massacre, “Eighteen girls vanish mysteriously from their beds at Roedean school! Fourteen boys disappear from Eton! Bones are found underneath dormitory windows!”
Even when reading the book of poetry Dirty Beasts, we soon realize that a child introduced at the start of a poem is very likely to be dead by the end of it, often through no fault of their own. In The Witches, the child protagonist, by being transformed into a mouse, is cursed to die within nine years. The book ends with the curse unlifted and with the implication that it is unliftable. In Dahl’s worlds, sometimes even heroic children die.
Of course, death isn’t the only horrible thing that can happen to a child in Dahl’s children’s fiction. In Matilda, we know that the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, might break Matilda’s arm because she broke Miss Honey’s arm when she was a little girl. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s poverty and the way that he suffers because of it turn his search for the Golden Ticket into something desperate. Every time it fails to turn up in a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight or a Nutty Crunch Surprise, it is an assurance that the universe does not automatically help children to prevent them from starving. The way that James from James and the Giant Peach is abused by his Aunts Spiker and Sponge is so vicious that it is unfilmable. In particular, capturing the violence visually requires making it too concrete to be appropriate for children. In the 1996 Disney film of James and the Giant Peach, the two aunts, for all their unkindness, are never shown physically hurting James. The difference between children’s horror like Dahl’s and adult horror is likewise often not a matter of the events depicted but of the detail given. In a poem in Dirty Beasts, Chocky-Wock the Crocodile eats multiple children at every meal. If this were depicted in visceral detail on the page or the screen, the result would be too horrible for a kid.