Roald Dahl, The Best of Roald Dahl (Vintage, 1990)

Sure, you've read his books for kids. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda; these are wonderful representations of the twisted imagination of Roald Dahl. But they feel a little restrained, like there's more in there waiting to get out.

The thing is, until you've read his stories for adults, you've not experienced the full malevolence of Roald Dahl. Some of the stories in this collection may be familiar to you from the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which hosted adaptations of them, including "Man from the South," "Lamb to the Slaughter," and "Dip in the Pool."

Let's begin with my personal favorite, "Lamb to the Slaughter." I have read this story over a dozen times, and it never fails to please. This Edgar Allan Poe Award winner, the simple story of Mary Maloney and a frozen leg of lamb, is delightfully wicked. I'll not give away too much of the plot, but this is a perfect introduction to Dahl's style.

"Man from the South" (also collected in A Harvest of Horrors) concerns a writer on vacation. The writer is party to a conversation between another man and a gambler. Upon hearing the man say that his lighter never fails, the gambler challenges him to a bet: if the lighter lights ten times in a row, the man wins the gambler's Cadillac. But if it fails even once, the gambler cuts off the man's pinky finger. This one has a terrific surprise ending. It was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's show, with the gambler being played by Peter Lorre. Also, Quentin Tarantino directed a segment of Four Rooms called "The Man from Hollywood," which takes the basic idea and turns it into a dark comedy.

"Royal Jelly" is about a beekeeper who tries to give extra nutrition to his newborn baby by feeding it royal jelly, the special food bees give to the one destined to be queen of the hive. This was written long before taking royal jelly capsules came into fashion during the "health food" craze, but it's still quite a stunner.

"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" is a wonderful portrait of the possible consequences of adultery, "Dip in the Pool" concerns the failings of cheating at gambling, and "Parson's Pleasure" examines what can happen to someone who tries to swindle another. Dahl's stories have a conscience to be sure, and however cruel the punishment, it always fits the crime.

The final story, and the most recent, is "The Bookseller." Published in 1987, it was added to the original 1978 edition for this printing. It is quite the most "adult" of the stories, as it concerns two wicked people extorting money from new widows by billing them for various pornography purchases that their husbands never actually made. The widows of course pay the bills simply to avoid publicity. But one day, the swindlers' plan goes awry. You see, one of the husbands was actually....

But you'll have to read it for yourself, won't you?

There are several more tales included to delight your dark side, almost thirty total. This is a nearly perfect collection. It extends from the earliest years of Dahl's writing to the most recent, picking and choosing from the best, and presenting us with a loving portrait of a much-adored writer who had beautifully fiendish way of looking at life.

[Craig Clarke]

Here is Roald Dahl's official Web site, but a better-documented informational Web site is at www.roalddahlfans.com.