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Exploring Roald Dahl's short story and dark psychology -The Asian Age


I first heard of The Landlady (1959/1960) when I was around 14-16 years old. I was hearing another student tackle it from the O'Levelarchive of past papers in my teacher's house. These sorts of stories always fascinated me.

One can think of The Telltale heart, which I had read when I was around 10 in the school's library without knowing its Gothic and haunting significance in the Western literary canon.  I was really fascinated by the short story when my teacher was explaining parts of it to another person.

I had recently read things with dark psychology, for example, the controversial Tell me Your Dreams (1998) by Sidney Sheldon, when I was around 13 or 14 and it was a mature book with themes that perhaps today people may not feel repulsed by but at the time it was disturbing. I knew some parts of the story when I started but Tell me Your Dreams really fascinated me.

Like The Landlady, it seems to possess no supernatural elements but had its own macabre. Roald Dahl is usually known for his children's books but The Landlady was for an older audience. Dahl stated that the story was close to something supernatural he had written, as in involving ghosts, but then he scrapped those elements and made the conclusion something that is plausible in the real world. The paper would like to advise some reader discretion as the story has some graphic imagery.

The Landlady had been adapted into a short film in a British show called Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988). Dahl introduced it himself as something that might happen even if it seems unlikely it is not so far-fetched. The Landlady is basically and elderly woman who is a serial killer.

She seems timid, a bit mentally disoriented and also strange. Yet, no one questions the unnamed landlady because we live in cultures that do not treat an aging woman like her as a threat. What I personally enjoyed is that Dahl, being a male author, was able to understand that female characters can be dangerous aside the trope of the femme fatale. He also made the landlady's victims male characters, which also seemed oppositional to the logic that male individuals have less to fear.

Billy Weaver, the protagonist of The Landlady, is a 17-year-old boy. However, he is working for an insurance company and is going from London to Bath. You see Billy is very well-dressed young man and he seems a bit sure about himself. In the short episode, he also moves around with a lot of agency. He is looking for a place to stay while he is in Bath.

                                                        The 1979 adaptation

The short story is more focused on Billy's thoughts and how he comprehends things. Short stories allow one to focus more one on character. Most film adaptations don't adapt Billy's thoughts about The Landlady but we are supposed to read through his body language and expressions that he may seem a bit disturbed or uncomfortable by some of the landlady's behaviors.

In the 1979 film adaptation, we actually see the landlady making a room and also look at Billy with a form of excitement through the keyhole stating he has to come to her. Then on the stair landing, the landlady's proximity to Billy is actually really close, you may be wondering if she forgot to give him personal space. She even welcomes Billy home, which makes him confused as he is not home but then she adds that she wants her guests to think they are in a home away from home.

Billy's naivety and his lack of experience is shown via how he behaves with The Landlady, finding her off-putting but not necessarily dangerous as she is. In the short story he finds the landlady "dotty" but he is not alarmed by her behaviorisms:

"She was about forty-five or fifty years old, and the moment she saw him, she gave him a warm welcoming smile…She seemed terribly nice. She looked exactly like the mother of one's best schoolfriend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays. Billy took off his hat, and stepped over the threshold."

The Landlady uses and chooses words that in retrospect we are supposed to look at suspiciously: ""We have it all to ourselves," she said, smiling at him over her shoulder as she led the way upstairs. "You see, it isn't very often I have the pleasure of taking a visitor into my little nest." …"But I'm always ready. Everything is always ready day and night in this house just on the off-chance that an acceptable young gentleman will come along.

And it is such a pleasure, my dear, such a very great pleasure when now and again I open the door and I see someone standing there who is just exactly right." She was half-way up the stairs, and she paused with one hand on the stair-rail, turning her head and smiling down at him with pale lips. "Like you," she added, and her blue eyes travelled slowly all the way down the length of Billy's body, to his feet, and then up again"

                                                                   The US adaptation

The way she scrutinizes Billy is a bit unnerving. It isn't something normal. A female character may have been taught to read such gestures as red flags. Billy does not really know how to navigate through such behavior as he doesn't completely find it strange.

Though, some of her comments are strange. She eventually invites Billy to tea for the evening and he talks about two people, a Christopher Mulholland and a Gregory Temple. Billy feels like he has heard those names before. They seem to be missing young men. He saw their names signed in the landlady's guestbook. She describes them as:

""Oh no, I don't think they were famous. But they were extraordinarily handsome, both of them, I can promise you that. They were tall and young and handsome, my dear, just exactly like you." …"Mr Temple, of course, was a little older," she said, ignoring his remark. "He was actually twenty eight. And yet I never would have guessed it if he hadn't told me, never in my whole life. There wasn't a blemish on his body." "A what?" Billy said. "His skin was just like a baby's." There was a pause."

Of course, how would the landlady know what body type Mr. Temple was? She also observes and compliments Billy on his teeth. He just jokes that they are not as perfect as they seem and he has fillings. It is unusual for someone to look at your teeth.

She keeps a watchful gaze on Billy and seems to intentionally get his name wrong so that Billy says it again and again as if she is memorizing how he sounds and how he says his own name. When Billy states that Mulholland was probably an Eton school boy she seemed annoyed and clarifies the information: "My Mr Mulholland was certainly not an Eton schoolboy when he came to me. He was a Cambridge undergraduate."

The landlady seemed to be part-ephebophile: a person interested in adolescent/maturing boys as she is interested in Billy who is 17 and thinks it's a perfect age. For what, she doesn't really tell and we as the readers are meant to decipher the clues. She talks about the missing men as though they are her "possessions."

She says "my" for Mulholland though there is no reason for her to say that. She talks about them in the past tense but then says: ""Left?" she said, arching her brows. "But my dear boy, he never left. He's still here. Mr Temple is also here. They're on the third floor, both of them together."

In the US adaptation by Katherine Maxwell, Billy thinks the young men are gay and so are together. That is when Billy notices the animals in the house are not moving. The landlady seems to be a taxidermist who stuffs animals when they die.

Billy thinks it must have been difficult for her to do this but she casually replies: ""Not in the least," she said. "I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away. Will you have another cup of tea?" "No, thank you," Billy said. The tea tasted faintly of bitter almonds, and he didn't much care for it."

 When Billy is confused by the lack of clients in the Bed and Breakfast and asks if they are others around the landlady casually replies to him: """No, my dear," she said. 'Only you.'"That contradicts Temple and Mulholland staying.

The lines were very chilling. I asked my teacher what were the bitter almonds. She explains it was cyanide. That the landlady was poisoning Billy that she also killed and performed taxidermy on Temple and Mulholland. Whenever, a young man or a beautiful man shows up she gets enamored by them and wish to keep them as objects in her house. This is one of the worst forms of sexual objectification one can think of but the unique part it is being done to male characters. 

Dahl's story and Sam Thomas's You tube short film both just indicate what has happened to Billy. The 1979 TV adaptation and Maxwell's shows Billy's fate. Billy is dying in the 1979 one and realizes that the landlady has undressed him too and all she can say is: "No need to blush you're beautiful." She stands in front of him ready to start stuffing him. It is very horrific and we all feel bad for Billy.

Good literature can be adapted in various ways and The Landlady short story is good literature. It is pretty timeless. I can revisit it over and over. I can read it now and still feel the chills of Billy entering into the den of the beast who is in the guise of a harmless rabbit.

The ordinariness of the house, the seeming maternal nature of the landlady and Billy's own naivety seemed to have sealed his fate. Dahl created the atmosphere that dark psychology and criminal acts do not require "a type." It can be manifested on anyone even seemingly a harmless older woman.


The writer is a copy editor at The Asian Age