Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What a Dainty Spider’s Web - #33

STORY:  “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl

FROM:  KISS KISS (Dell, 1961)

BASICALLY:  Fresh off the train from London, a young man about to start work at his first job is seeking lodgings, but becomes ensnared by the motherly owner of a too-good-to-be-true bed and breakfast.

I guess I'd classify this as a mild suspense story. I might also throw the word murder in there even if it is kind of a spoiler, but here's the thing. I don't read much mystery/suspense, and I'm no expert at guessing endings—but even to me, early on, it was clear that the fresh-faced protagonist of this story was headed for his doom. The book's packaging probably helped create some assumptions going in, some sense of dark doings, but most of the feeling comes from Dahl's own setup. You have seventeen-year-old Billy Weaver, whose youth and gee-whiz inexperience are emphasized. The night's "air was deadly cold and the wind was like a flat blade of ice on his cheeks." The streets are empty, and then Billy notices this bed and breakfast so abruptly it's almost magical. And everything about it, from the dachshund curled up before the fire to the extremely low rent mentioned by the toothache-sweet landlady, conspires to make it irresistible to Billy.

At this point in the story, it's clear that something is off. It's just all too too. So twee and delightful you could just puke! It's clear to the reader, even if Billy just blunders his way past it. There's even an explicit moment of almost-supernatural inveigling as Billy decides he's going to check out the pub before settling on this cozy little bed and breakfast, but then finds himself "compelled" by mysterious forces to turn back.

If the story had been written more recently, I would expect this blatant setup to be undermined somehow. Sure, it's a bit of an inversion of classical tropes to put a little old lady up to villainous acts, but within the story's own logic, it doesn't come as a surprise. She's too perfect, a fact that Dahl emphasizes rather than obscures. In this postmodern age of literature, the reader's expectations become part of a narrative—for many writers (Italo Calvino, for example, or Donald Barthelme, or Lydia Davis) the fun lies in turning those expectations on their heads. But Dahl, at least in this story, isn't operating on that level. He sets out to tell a straightforward, suspenseful story about a young man who never suspects that he's been ensnared by an evil being. And that's exactly what he delivers.

Strangely enough, this is yet another story that was first published in The New Yorker. (See here and here for my ever-evolving opinion of that magazine.) It doesn't feel like a New Yorker story in the least, but maybe things were different in the fifties. I wonder if, in its day, "The Landlady" would have seemed edgier to the common reader. Maybe to those for whom zombies, vampires, and CSI weren't a part of mainstream pop culture, Dahl's spooky tale would have come across as grim and macabre and dark. I mean, for me, it still does all those things, but in the same way that A Series of Unfortunate Events does—its darkness doesn't really scare, but still kind satisfies the desire for something creepy. Just, in a really, really mild way.

So mild, in fact, that the story might almost fail—were it not for the fact that every single sentence is basically as faultless as sentences can be. And not only are the sentences themselves perfectly simple and perfectly phrased, but they are placed in such an order and with such a rhythm that they unspool the story with a perfect pace. (If you're curious, you should google the story and take a look for yourself. I'd love to know what you think.) The thing that's great about this story is that even though you know what's in store for poor Billy, Dahl still raises a powerful curiosity about how everything's going to go down. If the place is so preternaturally nicenice, how is Billy going to die?

That's the carrot that Dahl dangles before his reader every step of the way. From the moment the reader ascertains what naïve Billy cannot—that this bed and breakfast is not what it seems—they become invested in the story's outcome. So Dahl draws this out by showing Billy's gradually dawning suspicions. Not suspicions, even; Billy doesn't ever quite catch on to what's happening to him. But he starts asking questions about the previous tenants who've signed the guest book, and even if he won't live long enough to figure out what it all means, the reader hangs onto every word, waiting for the grisly fate that's sure to come.