SUPERVERSIVE: “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”, by Roald Dahl

Tuesday , 26, January 2016 5 Comments

Happy Superversive Tuesday, everybody! Today, we’re going to do something completely different: We’re going to talk about the little known sequel to that children’s sci-fi classic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

What? Not sci-fi? Nonsense. Of course it is. Gum that changes flavor so that it tastes exactly like a full meal? A special machine that stretches out children to the height of basketball players? A special ray gun that shrinks objects and turns TV screens temporarily transparent? “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is as sci-fi as they come. And no, oompa-loompas and nut-testing squirrels do not make the book fantasy: both have perfectly natural explanations in the book, and are not the least bit magical or supernatural.

First, let’s talk a little bit about Roald Dahl, a man known as the Edgar Allen Poe of Europe.

What? The children’s author? The one who wrote books such as “Matilda” and “The BFG”? Why, yes, that very same author. The man in fact wrote a pretty fair number of horror stories, among them the sci-fi tale “Royal Jelly”, about a man who turns into a giant bee, and his daughter who turns into a gigantic larvae. Not exactly children’s material. This lovely tale was originally published in a Twilight Zone anthology.

His most famous horror story is not sci-fi related at all, but is in fact a mystery/thriller. “Lamb to the Slaughter” is about a woman who bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of mutton, then feeds it to the police. It was later made into an episode of “Alfred Hitchock Presents”, and is actually considered a minor classic. “Twisted” is perhaps the right word for this one.

But he did publish some other sci-fi stories, my personal favorite being “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”, about a machine that could write books better than most authors, and soon dominated the publishing industry. Anybody who can get a copy of his collection “The Umbrella Man and Other Stories” should do so, as it is excellent.

But enough of that. Let’s get back to the subject of this post, “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”. The reasons I chose to bring this book up are twofold. One, most people don’t even know it exists. And two, it is completely insane.

The book starts immediately after the end of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Like, immediately. Charlie and Willy Wonka crash their elevator through the roof of Charlie’s home and pick up his family, including his three grandparents, who still refuse to leave their beds. The book really gets in gear when Grandma Josephine sends the Glass Elevator into space, where it goes into orbit.

Yep. The elevator orbits the earth. And this is pretty much the least crazy thing to happen in the book.

Willy Wonka takes advantage of their flight and decides to dock with the “Space Hotel”, a five hundred room hotel, not yet open, currently orbiting the earth.

The President of the United States, a man with the absolutely wonderful name of Lancelot R. Gilligrass, is convinced that Wonka and the Buckets are Martians, and tries to freeze them to death. Wonka saves them by uttering random nonsense words, scaring the President into buttering them up and inviting them to the White House as guests. No, he’s not very bright.

Let me pause and apologize to you for being so detailed. It’s hard not to be; everything that happens is just too crazy. And now it’s about to go off the charts, because aliens invade.

Yep. Aliens.

These aliens are known as the Vermicious Knids. Here we must compliment Dahl for creating some of the most unique aliens I’ve ever seen (or read about). The Vermicious Knids are giant, vicious, amoeba-like aliens capable of shape-shifting (and spelling the word SCRAM). Our heroes escape into the elevator, but the Knids manage to destroy the Hotel’s engines, apparently stranding its inhabitants in space forever.

Oh, and they kill twenty-four people. This is never mentioned again.

To defeat the Knids, Wonka tows the Hotel back to Earth using the elevator. The Knids form themselves into GIANT HOOKS, and try to drag the hotel back into space, but Wonka manages to get them into the Earth’s atmosphere, incinerating them. Yes, Wonka manages to stop an alien invasion by incinerating the aliens.

And now it gets EVEN CRAZIER.

Back on Earth, Wonka lands the Elevator back into the Chocolate Factory. I’ll summarize the exact series of events, but by trying to use a special vitamin to turn the Bucket grandparents younger he accidentally sends one of them into the land of the Minuses. Minusland has evil creatures called Gnoolies; if they bite you, you are first subtracted, then divided. Charlie asks “Do you die at once?”

Here is Wonka’s response:

“First you become subtracted…A little later you are divided…but very slowly. It takes a long time…it’s long division and it’s very painful. After that, you become one of them.”

(This raises the question: Where do the other Gnoolies come from? A rather chilling thought. What a nice image for a children’s book.)

Grandma Georgina is safely returned…where she becomes over 300 years old, having come to America on the Mayflower. Finally returned to her right age (along with the other Grandparents), our heroes get a message from the White House, where they are hailed as heroes. Wonka finally convinces the Grandparents to get out of bed by convincing them that the bed will not fit into the helicopter coming to pick them up. The book ends with the promise that the day has hardly begun (!!!). Dahl clearly intended a sequel but never got to it.

Whoo. This ended up very long. But it was really necessary to pack in all of the cool, crazy stuff in there. Anyway, the book doesn’t actually have very good reviews. That’s understandable. The whole thing is way too disjointed, and the simple whimsy of a kid in a candy store is gone. But I always liked it regardless. Dahl has a sensational imagination. One way or another I’ve read very few books as wildly inventive as this one.

There are some awesome sci-fi concepts in there. The Vermicious Knids are terrific aliens, and Minusland gets a fantastic description:

This, [Charlie] thought, must be what Hell is like. Hell without heat. There was something unholy about it all, something unbelievably diabolical. It was all so deathly quiet, so desolate and empty. At the same time, the constant movement, the twisting and swirling of the misty vapors, gave one the feeling that some very powerful force, evil and malignant, was at work all around.

Awesome. You can see Dahl going back to his horror roots here. How can any sci-fi fan worth his salt not love this place? It’s as original a setting as any in science fiction.

Actually, in a weird way, this book reminds me of John C. Wright’s “Somewhither”. Dahl was clearly trying to throw in as many insane, over the top events and inventions as possible. Like “Somewhither”, the overall result is mixed. This isn’t great literature. But also like “Somewhither”, one has to admire the audacity of it all. This is just pure fun all around. It’s impossible to hate it.

Anyway, there’s your retrospective on one of the most creative, but little known, sci-fi books ever written. Whatever else you can say about Dahl, there really isn’t anybody who compares in originality. Dahl is an absolutely fascinating man. His autobiography, “Going Solo”, is by far the best I’ve ever read, and a wonderful adventure story itself. It really should be required reading for anybody remotely interested in war stories. I give “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” a high recommendation for those interested in a change of pace from the usual sci-fi fare.

Anthony Marchetta is the author of the short stories “A Quadrillion Occupied Planets” and “Take Up Your Cross”, as well as the author of the articles “The Philosophy of Serenity” and “The Problem with the Problem of Susan”. He is also the chief editor of the upcoming anthology “God, Robot”, and is currently working on a post-apocalyptic Arthurian novel. If you liked this article, go check out Superversive SF for more great stuff!

5 Comments
  • Deuce Richardson says:

    Cool post. An article on Dahl and political incorrectness:

    http://www.roalddahlfans.com/articles/char.php

    • Anthony says:

      The oompa-loompas are an interesting case. I actually think the book is improved by making them fictional creatures from a fictional country, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the reasons Dahl did.

      Still, making the oompa-loompas a new species of little people who love cacao beans is much more whimsical, interesting, and fitting to that universe than making them African pygmies.

  • H.P. says:

    That Hitchcock episode is why, to this day, I leave the freezer door open whenever possible.

  • Jill says:

    Dahl is weird and wonderful. I loved the Umbrella Man and other stories and The Great Glass Elevator. Well, pretty much anything he wrote. Nice post.

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