"The Witches"

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Writing about The BFG the other day, I was shocked to realize that I hadn't yet taken a look at Roald Dahl's work.  Surely no other author tapped so well into a child's complex psyche-- he gave us the terrifying thrills we craved, the naughty humor we guiltily loved, and he never talked down to us.

After I'd devoured all of Dahl's books in the "Juvenile" section of the library, I remember eagerly moving on to his other titles-- the ones way over in the "Adult" section.  They didn't have Quentin Blake's illustrations, but they did have a man who had his skin flayed for his tattoo, a woman bludgeoning her husband to death with a leg of lamb, and a compulsive gambler who chops off people's fingers.  Such wonderful, twisted stuff!  I imagined that all those "adult bookstores" I saw signs for downtown must have shelves full of similar stories.

For some reason, just the label "Adult" had prepared me to expect the morbid twists and turns in those books, but the same Hitchcokian plot devices absolutely shocked me in Dahl's fare intended for children.  The one that most stuck with me was from the end of The Witches.  The hero, a little boy, gets turned into a mouse and doesn't ever get turned back!  Then Dahl goes for another turn of the screw--the boy asks his grandmother how long a mouse can expect to live.

‘A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,’ my grandmother said.  ‘About nine years.’
‘Good!’ I cried. ‘That's great! It's the best news I've ever had!’
‘Why do you say that?’ she asked, surprised.
‘Because I would never want to live longer than you,’ I said. ‘I couldn't stand being looked after by anybody else.’
There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.
‘How old are you, Grandmamma?’ I asked.
‘I'm eighty-six,’ she said.
‘Will you live another eight or nine years?’
‘I might,’ she said. ‘With a bit of luck.’
‘You've got to,’ I said. ‘Because by then I'll be a very old mouse and you'll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we'll both die together.’

Yes, this is "the best news [he's] ever had!"--the fact that he will only live another eight or nine years, that he will remain a mouse, and that he will die in tandem with his aged grandmother.  Way to dream big, kid.

Now, I realize that if this plot were to be found on the shelves of an "adult bookstore," it would only appeal to a very, very, very specialized kind of audience-- folks more twisted than even Dahl's tales.

Lesson learned:
Did you know that the heart of a mouse beats at the rate of five hundred times a minute?

Dahl, Roald.  The Witches.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.
Buy The Witches

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