In "The Landlady," how does Roald Dahl manage to hold the reader's interest throughout the story?
After a certain point in the story Roald Dahl holds the reader's interest with foreshadowing. But in the early part he holds the reader's interest just by describing a scene of perfect simplicity and and tranquility. What could be more safe and innocent than a homey bed-and-breakfast establishment in a stodgy town like Bath? The landlady is a typical sweet little old lady who keeps everything neat and tidy and likes to chat with her guests.
The reader, of course, senses that there must be something sinister about such a place and such a landlady. We are suspicious just because she seems so completely innocent. And this isn't only because we know what to expect from Roald Dahl; it would be the same if any other author had written the story. It is not unusual for a horror story to start off with a sentence such as: "It was a beautiful, sunny summer day and the birds were singing in the trees." Here, for example, is the opening of Shirley Jackson's shocking horror story "The Lottery":
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.
Here, by comparison, is the opening sentence of "The Landlady":
Billy Weaver had traveled down from London on the slow afternoon train, with a change at Reading on the way, and by the time he got to Bath, it was about nine o'clock in the evening, and the moon was coming up out of a clear stary sky over the houses opposite the station entrance.
This absence of foreshadowing is a kind of foreshadowing. We know something has got to happen.
After Billy signs the guest-book, the real foreshadowing begins. He notices the names of the two former guests and thinks he has heard them but can't remember in what connection. At first the reader is not suspicious of the tea the landlady is serving--but then it becomes obvious that she is already involved in poisoning him.
The tea tasted faintly of bitter almonds, and he didn't much care for it.
But he has already consumed one whole cup, and his fate is sealed. It gradually dawns on the reader--though not on Billy--that this crazy woman has become an accomplished taxidermist. Billy realizes that the caged parrot is a stuffed parrot and then realizes that the little dachshund he thought was sleeping so peacefully in his basket is a stuffed dachshund. Still, it doesn't occur to him that this woman might have stuffed Christopher Mulholland and Gregory W. Temple, even when she tells him:
"Mr. Temple, of course, was a little older. . . . 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."
How on earth would she know that? Dahl doesn't describe Billy's reaction. The author has specified, however, that his hero is very young, only seventeen years old. An older man might decide to leave this place abruptly, because the most innocent thing this landlady could have in mind is climbing into her guest's bed in the middle of the night.
All the talk about Mulholland and Temple make the reader strongly suspect that these men both received a lot of media attention because they had mysteriously disappeared. We know what is going to happen to Billy when he asks if there haven't been any other guests except those two men in the last two or three years and the story ends abruptly with:
"No, my dear," she said. "Only you."