Funny thing, fear; what sends one person diving under the duvet can leave another entirely unmoved. An example: I recently discovered the joys of Stephen King, and took it upon myself to excavate his back catalogue, reading two early-period stonkers, IT and The Stand, in quick succession. IT, with its shape-shifting monster hiding out in the shadows, is billed as a slice of pure horror; a nightmarish vision of childhood in which balloons are harbingers of evil and clowns are emphatically not to be trusted. I assumed it’d have me climbing the walls, but although I fell for it hook, line and sinker, it barely raised a goosebump. The Stand, on the other hand, in which a man-made plague lays waste to the world’s population and the survivors are terrorised by dreams of a dark man – the embodiment of a malign, American-gothic spirit that creeps behind cornrows and peers through the eyes of crows – reduced me to jelly. The Stand is light on IT’s adrenaline jolts; rather it’s a slow-building creepshow in which terror lurks at the edges of the action, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye and, for me, infinitely more frightening for that. It’s not the flashy, fairground scares that send my heart-rate rocketing, it seems, but a sense of mounting dread – which is why Roald Dahl‘s supremely sinister short story The Landlady sets me twitching and gibbering and searching frantically for the exit.
by Roald Dahl
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The woman who opens the door is equally comfortable, putting him 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 Billy goes to sign his name in the guest book he notices that there are just two other names in there, each dating from several years back. What’s more, both names seem oddly familiar. He asks the landlady, who has entered bearing tea, whether her guests were famous for anything. “Oh no,” she replies, “I don’t think they were famous. But they were incredibly handsome, both of them, I can promise you that. They were tall and young and handsome, my dear, just exactly like you.”
Up to now, there’s been little to scare the horses – the landlady’s appearance “like a jack-in-the-box” at the front door, perhaps, or her smiling declaration that they have the place “all to ourselves”, if you’re being picky. But here the first identifiably menacing notes are introduced. As the pair sit on the sofa, sipping tea, with Billy still worrying at the question of where he’s heard those names before (and didn’t he hear them in connection with one another?), 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 scene fades out 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 are seen to 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 revealed, as the story unfolds, to be nothing more than a stage set; a rickety facade whose charm throws into relief the horror of what’s concealed behind it.
The road I live on in London is a Victorian terrace which, as it descends towards the station, expires on one side into a school playing field, leaving the houses on the other looking across an open space and giving the street, for a stretch, the vague feeling of a seaside promenade. In the window of one of these houses is a bird cage, containing a raven, imperfectly stuffed. It’s not a B&B and there’s no chance of the raven taking anyone in for more than a minute, but every time I walk past it on my way home, particularly in winter and particularly at night, I think of The Landlady. And I tell you what: you wouldn’t get me inside that house for any money. Which is ironic, really, because the lesson the story should have imparted is that it won’t be that house, the one I’ve got my eye on, that contains the horror, but the one it hasn’t occurred to me to avoid; the next one down but three, perhaps, with the green door and neat front garden. Unlike the supernatural fables of MR James and his ilk, Dahl’s chilly little tale cuts straight to the heart of what’s truly scary: the real world, and the people living in it. There’s no flashing neon sign above the heads of society’s killers; they don’t dance out of the shadows wearing clown masks or come at us flashing razorblade gloves. Chances are, they’ll look just like you – and you won’t notice anything’s up until it’s far, far too late.