Dirty Beasts by Roald Dahl

Dirty Beasts book cover
Rating 8.5/10
Deliciously dirty and slightly dark.

Dirty Beasts is Roald Dahl's second collection of poetry, publish in 1983, three years after Revolting Rhymes. Whereas his first collection involved a uniquely grotesque Dahl slant on several traditional fairy tales, Dirty Beasts contains nine poems which detail the exploits of various creatures and children, from a lion who explains his favourite food, to a cow who sprouts wings and flies, to a girl's unfortunate experience with porcupine.

The rhymes vary in length from short pastiches or sketches, to full length tales. However, whatever their lengths Roald Dahl's skills as a wordsmith are very much in evidence, indeed the humour of many passages comes purely from Dahl's eccentric turns of description. I particularly enjoyed for example the poor girl in the Porcupine exclaiming after sitting upon the spiny beast "I ran for home, I shouted 'mum! behold the prickles in my bum!"

As is expected, all of the poems involve the trade mark Dahl dark humour and bizarre circumstances, though they vary in tone and setting from morality tales, to short jokes or anecdotes about weird happenings, to a full scale adventure story. The variety of poems and creatures on display mean that though Dirty Beasts is still an extremely short book, the variety compensates for the length meaning that it didn't feel too short the way Revolting Rhymes did.

The only problem with Dirty Beasts is that for young children there are portions that might well pass beyond acceptable levels of fear. Dahl apparently believed that it was actually part of childhood to be afraid sometimes, especially when it came to stories about monsters like trolls or giants.

I generally agree on this point, since after all if children do not learn to confront the fearful in stories and see how monsters and villains can be overcome, how will they be able to confront similarly fearful things later on in life

Several stories feature animals that eat people. The Pig for example involves a clever pig who realizes that he is eventually going to be butchered and sold for pork and bacon, so decides to eat the farmer himself first.

These stories are no less frightening than say the big bad wolf eating the little pigs in some versions of the fairy tale (including Dahl's own retelling in Revolting Rhymes), and thus shouldn't be a problem. Two tales from Dirty Beasts, The Crocodile and The Scorpion however both feature a far more worrying storytelling format that actually verges on horror. Both involve parents (a father and mother respectively), telling their children bed time stories about the creatures, a child eating crocodile called Crockiwock, who likes to eat boys with mustard and girls with butterscotch, and a scorpion called Stingaling who delights in stinging children on the behind.

After the initial introduction however, the point of view changes to reveal the parent talking to the child lying in bed. In The Crocodile, the father exclaims "listen, what's that I hear, golumfing softly up the stair" then details in verse the entrance of Crockiwock, with the poem ending as he comes in the door.

In The Scorpion however the situation is even worse, since after the mother introduces Stingaling, she asks why the child looks tense, to which the child replies "oh mummy underneath the sheet, there's something moving on my feet".

The child asks if it could be Stingaling, to which the mother replies "what nonsense" then there is then a genuinely disturbing sequence of the child narrating ever more frantically how the creature crawls up their legs, and finally arrives on their bottom and the poem ends with the child screaming "Ow! ow ow! Ow ow! Ow ow!"

In neither the Crocodile nor The Scorpion does Dahl have the respective creatures meet any sort of consequence for their actions, implying not only that the creatures are still out there, but also possibly that the respective children didn’t survive their encounters. Both poems also occur when the child is in bed at night being read to by parents, which seems a perfect recipe for nightmares, especially with the implication that both Crockiwock and Stingaling are quite able to get into people's bedrooms.

As I said, I would usually agree with Dahl's stance on fearful stories, and in fact remember being particularly scared by Dahl's book The BFG myself, however in those two poems I think Dahl crosses the line a little too far, so parents may possibly want to review those parts of the book before reading to children.

Dirty Beasts is a far more diverse book than revolting Rhymes and one which definitely shows Dahl's calibre as an author, while possibly not as appealing for its relationship to traditional childhood stories, it's still a lot of fun, being in parts disturbing, funny wondrous and ironic, and highly worth the attention of any Roald Dahl fan young or old.

This Dirty Beasts book review was written by

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