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