You've probably never heard of The Landlady (Popular Library, June 1976), nor had I when I stumbled on its cover art during one of my regular Google journeys trying to find more forgotten horror fiction. The juxtaposition of wrinkled old hands deftly undressing a creepy little doll jumped out at me, as did the tag-line "terror turn-on," the essential references to The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, and publisher Popular Library has long been a trustworthy one for me during those pre-Stephen King days. I looked into author Constance Rauch's biography, learned this was the first of her three novels. I was hoping to discover a lost classic, and while The Landlady isn't that, it's easy to say that this is an unassuming chiller with some terrific unique creepiness.
At first the setup seems a little too Burnt Offerings (1973), in which a family rents a summer home while the owner resides in an upstairs room, a virtual recluse. But unlike that earlier novel, the landlady of the title is Mrs. Falconer, and she makes no bones about being seen and heard in her apartment. She pops in at unexpected and inopportune moments to disturb the Porters: young wife Jessica, her older husband Sam, and toddler daughter Patience. Falconer is eccentric, that's no surprise, with odd habits and, the Porters come to learn, an unsavory reputation with other citizens of this well-to-do town.
There's a murder, eerie night-time sounds coming from a disused stairway that connects the two apartments, a cop doing research into Falconer and her dead husband's doings, and well-staged parties with the Porters interesting friends and colleagues that get weird. Rauch is particularly good at detailing a business arrangement Sam sets up with a friend; the delicate pairing of money and friendship can go wrong in so many ways, and Rauch elicits some knowing moments of discomfort, embarrassment, and upward mobility that's not so upward. As in Rosemary's Baby, Rauch puts wife and mother Jessica in a position of precarious paranoia, then tightens the screws. Tiny Patience has mysterious fits that seem impossible to control, there's the horrific scene when Jessica searches Mrs. Falconer's apartment, and my goodness, that doll you see on the cover—! Yep, it turns up too but inside it is so much more repulsive:
The doll was made of aging, half-sticky, half-dry and corroded latex stretched over a spongy composition frame, its "skin" luridly jaundiced. It was, admittedly, a slightly naughty toy. Perhaps a novelty item sold by mail through the pages of some bygone stag magazine some 30 or 40 years earlier... The body was as obscene as the head was grotesque...
Futura UK paperback, 1977
I mean, ick, right? Anyway, this is 250 pages of prime mid-'70s setting, not deep or disturbing, with a few familiar notes of horror and squickiness, a pretty good pay-off, written by someone who has an ear for dialogue and class conflict. No earth-shattering discovery, not even a minor classic, but simply a refreshing read to take the edge off the heat of a summer afternoon. If you enjoyed the aforementioned Burnt Offerings, Crawlspace, Stepford Wives, and other quiet, slow-burning '70s horror novels, you really can't go wrong with The Landlady.
Why didn't I tell him how the day really went?
Why didn't I tell him that I'm scared out of my wits...
that this place is a nightmare...
that I want to get the hell out of here!