Part two of our series exploring spooky secrets in the Roald Dahl archive...
“The best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them. At least you don’t see the ghost. Instead you see only the result of his actions. Occasionally you can feel it brushing past you, or you are made aware of its presence by subtle means… If a story does permit a ghost to be seen, then he doesn’t look like one. He looks like an ordinary person.”
Introduction to Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, 1983
Roald Dahl was a master of the short story genre, and he started his career writing for adults: subversive, disquieting stories with a twist, such as Lamb to the Slaughter, Skin and William and Mary. Many of these were adapted for the TV series Tales of the Unexpected.
He later turned his talent to writing books for children, inserting fantastic and sometimes scary elements into his stories and leading his readers into a world where almost anything could happen.
However, despite his success as an author, Roald Dahl felt he never had the ability to write a good ghost story. Instead, he compiled a collection of what he considered to be the finest examples of the genre, including authors such as L.P. Hartley, Cynthia Asquith and Mary Treadgold, into Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. In the introduction, he wrote that:
Spookiness is the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.
Although he never wrote an actual ghost story, Roald Dahl did insert ghostly elements into the early drafts of some of his books. In an early version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, enigmatic whispering voices recite long poems at the outlandish exit of each naughty child. At first, Willy Wonka pretends he can’t hear them, but later confides to Charlie that he doesn’t know where the whispering voices come from:
I don’t know any more than you do. I wish I did. But they’re always here when I’m taking children around.
In later drafts, these voices were changed to become the mischievous but mysterious Oompa-Loompas.
Other well-known characters begin as ghostly ideas. One of the pages from Roald Dahl’s Ideas Books contains the words ‘A Ghost Story’. The notes describe a mysterious figure who would visit sleeping children at night to blow powders through their windows to give them amazing powers – to be ‘marvellous artists’, ‘a clever speller’ or ‘a strong boy’. In these notes, we learn that all the local children knew about this figure and far from being frightened, would put notices in their windows asking him to visit them.
These notes eventually became, of course, the story of the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG, who first appeared as part of a mysterious bed-time story told by Danny’s Dad in Danny the Champion of the World.
Roald Dahl’s Ideas Books yield other intriguing notes. There is a bundle of pages which is believed to be early thoughts for his final book The Minpins. These contain details of children who go up to ‘The Devil’s Wood’, which becomes The Forest of Sin in The Minpins.
We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that Roald Dahl was thinking of Angling Spring Wood which lay just beyond his home in the Buckinghamshire countryside when he wrote these ideas down. He often used his local area for inspiration, sometimes taking his children down to stand under the railway bridge near their home so that he could tell them scary stories, using the gloom and the rumble of overhead trains to heighten the sense of suspense and send shivers down the spine of his listeners.
His scribbled notes for The Minpins are creepy to read, tapping into our fears of monsters in the darkness and what might happen to us if we step outside our safe, normal lives.
Among his initial ideas are some chilling lines about a boy who goes looking for birds’ nests and never returns, only to be glimpsed a month later, flying overhead during a stormy evening. There are also two sisters, both with ‘lovely black hair’ who go to The Devil’s Wood to pick flowers, but return two weeks later, unable to speak and with their hair turned white as snow. When asked by their mother to write down what happened to them, they write the same sentence: “we can’t remember”.
Above: page of written notes by Roald Dahl
There is also Little Mary Honey, ‘as brave as a tiger’, who sneaks off to The Devil’s Wood, and listens to the trees whispering to her: “Where are you going?” On the next page, Roald Dahl added the notes ‘Could it be ghosts?’ ‘Tree ghosts’.
Above: extract of Roald Dahl's hand written notes
However, it is this unused character of Little Mary Honey who ultimately provides the answer to our fear of ghosts and unseen, scary creatures. Roald Dahl says of her that she had learnt that:
Most of the things we are frightened of are not really there at all. We just imagine they are.
Surely a good thing to remember when reading ghost stories, as the nights get darker and Halloween approaches!
Fancy taking a peek in the Roald Dahl archive? The Roald Dahl Museum runs monthly archive tours for adults and children aged 8+. See the What's On pages for more information.