18. The Landlady
This is day Eighteen of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
Everybody is familiar with Roald Dahl‘s children’s books and the movies made from them: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Willy Wonka), James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. What makes his children’s books so good, other than the crackerjack storytelling, is the element of subversive evil that lurks, sometimes just beneath the surface… sometimes a bit above. I think all great children’s literature has this dark side to it – at least anything that’s readable by adults.
Not quite as many people nowadays read his short, adult fiction. In these, he takes the evil and runs with it. His stories are the opposite of a lot of the modern fiction (the New Yorker fiction) that you read. The characters are cardboard, there is no character development, no fancy descriptions or clever word-play. It’s all a simple story, short, spare, straightforward right up the the twist reveal ending.
This sort of thing has fallen a bit out of favor today – which is a shame. As much as I like a complex tale of existential angst, complete with extensive interior monologues – there is something to be said for a quick simple plot. It’s satisfying if done well – it’s hard to do well, and Roald Dahl is the best.
Of course, the other thing is that this sort of work is very well adapted for television, especially the anthology series that were so popular during my childhood (and now can be found all over the internet). Dahl’s stories were the core of the various famous Hitchcock anthology shows, the underrated Tales of the Unexpected, or the forgotten Way Out.
Today, we have The Landlady. It’s a horror story, though you don’t know that until you get to the end. I like stuff like this and would love to be able to write it. It was first published in the New Yorker in 1959… where it would never get a second look today.
One word to the wise: as a chemist I can tell you… if you are drinking tea with a stranger and the beverage smells of bitter almonds, it’s time to leave. If you’ve had as much as a sip – time to call 911.
Billy was seventeen years old. He was wearing a new navy-blue overcoat, a new brown trilby hat, and a new brown suit, and he was feeling fine. He walked briskly down the street. He was trying to do everything briskly these days. Briskness, he had decided, was the one common characteristic of all successful businessmen. The big shots up at the head office were absolutely fantastically brisk all the time. They were amazing.
There were no shops on this wide street that he was walking along, only a line of tall houses on each side, all of them identical. They had porches and pillars and four or five steps going up to their front doors, and it was obvious that once upon a time they had been very swanky residences. But now, even in the darkness, he could see that the paint was peeling from the woodwork on their doors and windows and that the handsome white facades were cracked and blotchy from neglect.
—- The Landlady, Roald Dahl
If I’m going to put something up by Roald Dahl, I have to link to his story, Man from the South, in case you have never seen it before. I read it years and years ago, and always refer to it as an example of how to control rising tension – building until it becomes almost unbearable. This is true both of the written story and the television versions.
There are three versions on Youtube – one, the classic from Alfred Hitchcock, with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. It was also done in 1979 and 1985 – those versions are very good too.
I think I might like the Jose Ferrer version the best (I think it has the best crazy woman).
If you are as big a fan of Man from the South as I am – then you should check out the last segment of an otherwise terrible movie called Four Rooms. It’s a short riff by Quentin Tarantino on the whole deal – with a completely different, very Tarantino ending.
Here’s a clip (complete with money shot):