‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl

Looking back at the historical record, the evidence would appear to suggest that my close-mindedness on the subject of short fiction kicked in around puberty, along with other vices including, but not limited to, Sour Apple 20/20 and Regal Kingsize. I first encountered Dahl’s chilly little tale in an English lesson at the age of 12: it sunk its claws into me then, and in the years since it hasn’t loosened its grip a fraction. The story opens with young Billy Wheeler, newly arrived in Bath on “business”, casting around for a night’s lodgings. Walking from the station to a hotel, he passes a house with a B&B sign in the window and glances in. The scene is gloriously inviting: chrysanthemums in the window, a bright fire in the hearth and, in front of it, “a pretty little dachshund … curled up asleep”. He reasons that “animals were usually a good sign in a place like this” and decides to chance it.

From this moment on, Dahl allows the sense of menace to gradually mount. The woman who opens the door puts Billy in mind of “the mother of one’s best school friend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays”, and the rent is “fantastically cheap”. But when he signs in, he notices that there are just two other names in the guest book, each dating from several years back, each oddly familiar. He asks the landlady whether her guests were famous. “Oh no,” she replies, “But they were incredibly handsome … tall and young and handsome, my dear, just exactly like you.”

As the pair sit on the sofa, sipping tea, with Billy still worrying at the question of where he’s heard those names before, he notices suddenly that the animals he saw through the window are, in fact, dead. Stuffed. Goodness, he says, “it’s most terribly clever the way it’s been done … who did it?” “I did,” the landlady answers. And the tale fade to black soon after, ending with the landlady, in response to Billy’s question as to whether there really haven’t been any other guests in the last two years, replying, “No my dear. Only you.”

Dahl’s story is a masterclass in atmosphere. Through delicate hints (the stuffed animals; the way the landlady’s eyes travel “down the length of Billy’s body, to his feet, and then up again”) and details that are alarming only in context (her “small, white, quickly moving hands and red fingernails”, the tea with its whiff of “bitter almonds”), he shows us how it’s possible to tell a whole story by indirection. The setting itself is a coup de grace: that which at first seems so delightfully cosy and inviting is slowly revealed to be nothing more than a stage set; a rickety facade whose charm throws into relief the horror of what’s concealed behind it. Reader, I live in Bath now. And let me tell you, I keep my eyes peeled.

Originally published in The New Yorker, November 1959 and available online here. Collected in Kiss Kiss, Knopf, 1960, currently available from Penguin. Also in The Complete Short Stories Vol 2, Penguin, 2013

‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ by Roald Dahl

I was a lucky child who was read to, and then taught to read, and then allowed many, many books from the library. I was also lucky to be the generation that was brought up with Roald Dahl. The Henry Sugar collection is a teenage rather than children’s book, and I’ll never forget the specific type of end-of-childhood excitement and wonder this particular story provoked: a grittier, darker, more promising kind of excitement than that of a child, but the same absolute willingness to believe in the story’s unbelievable premise. I love it when a writer presents the impossible and says, “I know this is unbelievable, but trust me, it’s really true”. I don’t need to be asked twice; I’ll throw off all trappings of sensible rationalism, grab their hand, and go along for the ride.

Collected in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Jonathan Cape, 1977

‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl

“But I’m always ready. Everything is always ready day and night in this house just on the offchance that an acceptable young gentleman will come along.”

Seventeen-year-old Billy Weaver travels to Bath with work. Having been told to find his own lodgings, he chances across an odd but competitively priced Bed & Breakfast. He receives a warm welcome, has a chat about the names in the visitors book, and joins the landlady for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

I tend to read it for fun at first, then force them to think about the way the story is structured afterwards.

How does the writer prevent us from realising the woman is a murderer until the end of the story? Are there any hints that the Bed & Breakfast and the woman aren’t normal? Look again at the last sentence – is this a good way to end the story? Is it better to know a story is a scary story from the beginning, or is it better to find this out as a surprise?

First published in The New Yorker in November 1959; then anthologised in Kiss Kiss, Michael Joseph, 1960

‘Parson’s Pleasure’ by Roald Dahl

There is much glee indeed to be had reading Dahl’s stories, but this is the one that makes me wince the most, and with painful joy. A cruel and clever plot, an odious swindler of a protagonist, and a pair of wise fools make for a comedy that breezes along towards devastation. I listened to this as part of an audio book as I walked through London, the streets around me transforming into the summery Buckinghamshire countryside that Mr Boggis traverses in his station wagon, scouting for country houses he might relieve of their antiques. When new levels of deviousness are about to deliver him a major prize that will one day – he is sure – be known as The Boggis Commode, “All the buttercups in the field were suddenly turning into golden sovereigns, glistening in the sunlight. The ground was littered with them, and he swung off the track on to the grass so that he could walk among them and tread on them and hear the little metallic tinkle they made as he kicked them around with his toes.” Kicking buttercups comes before a fall, and one that made me giggle as much as Boggis does at his seeming fortune.

In Completely Unexpected Tales, Penguin, 1986; first published in Esquire (1958), available online here

‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ by Roald Dahl

I still have my copy of this collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces, published in 1977 when I was nine, and could have chosen any of its stories, because they’re lodged in my mind: ‘The Swan’, in which a boy attempts to fly; ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’, an account of the discovery of Roman silver in a Suffolk field; the memoir, ‘A Piece of Cake’. But the title story – which tells of a wealthy gambler who believes he’s hit on the perfect system for beating the house – stands out because I can still remember Henry’s motto for living: “It is better to incur a mild rebuke than to perform an onerous task.” Quite so.

(collection first published 1977, available in a Puffin edition)