When I picked up THE LITTLE STRANGER, I wasn’t expecting
to open the (creaky) door to a haunted house. Sarah Waters’s
previous novels have been wildly atmospheric but not particularly
scary. Her marvelous trilogy set in Victorian times (TIPPING THE
VELVET, FINGERSMITH and AFFINITY) has been justly celebrated for
its dizzying complexity, historical precision, and just plain
wonderful writing. THE NIGHT WATCH, set in London during World War
II, is a more introspective but equally enthralling book that
perhaps owes more to Virginia Woolf than to Charles Dickens. And
although it would be wrong to characterize Waters as a
“gay” novelist, lesbian themes have been a consistent
feature of her work --- until THE LITTLE STRANGER.
Although it is set in 1947, chronologically not so distant from THE
NIGHT WATCH, it is a very different sort of story. In an interview
Waters says she has long been “a fan of the gothic.” In
this novel she goes from spectator to creator.
THE LITTLE STRANGER belongs to a genre that has produced some
fine work --- Henry James’s THE TURN OF THE SCREW and Shirley
Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE come to mind --- as well
as plenty of out-and-out potboilers. All the typical plot features
are here. An outsider, often a man of science (here it is Dr.
Faraday, a fortyish GP), is called to a stately home in the English
countryside (Hundreds Hall, where the doctor’s mother was
once a servant and which is described by a visitor later in the
book, in a bit of post-modern irony, as looking “like
something from a horror film”); there, eerie and inexplicable
phenomena will soon unfold. But the focus for the first 100 pages
is all on the house and its inhabitants.
The Ayres family has lived in Hundreds since the 18th century,
but now the family has dwindled to three: the fiftyish Mrs. Ayres
and her two children, both in their 20s (Roderick, badly wounded
and shell-shocked in the war, and Caroline, a “noticeably
plain” young woman). The house, like Mrs. Ayres, has
“handsome bones behind a ravaged face” --- it is
crumbling around them, and it’s clear that Waters is
counterposing the decline of this particular family to the postwar
erosion of traditional British class structure.
While the Ayreses joke patronizingly about servants who used to
work at the hall --- many of whom have abandoned domestic service
for less demeaning employment --- the doctor broods: “Perhaps
it was the peasant blood in me, rising. But Hundreds Hall had been
made and maintained…by the very people they were laughing at
now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw
their labour, their belief in the house, and the house was
collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.” And that is really the
moving force of THE LITTLE STRANGER: the push and pull between Dr.
Faraday, the man of humble origins who is entranced by Hundreds,
and the poor but lordly Ayreses, “playing gaily at gentry
As the mood darkens and the apparently supernatural incidents
multiply, Dr. Faraday becomes ever more mesmerized by the family.
Although he tries to maintain his medical rationalism, there is an
inherent ambiguity here. Are the noises, fires, strange marks on
the walls, and other signs of a ghostly presence (perhaps Mrs.
Ayres’s first daughter, who died of diphtheria at seven) the
work of poltergeists? Are they the products of a deranged mind or
of an excess of sexual energy? Hundreds itself, anthropomorphized
by its inhabitants, seems malevolent. “The house knows all
our weaknesses and is testing them, one by one,” Caroline
Waters’s characters, as always, are remarkable. Mrs.
Ayres, who is equal parts Miss Havisham and Mrs. Miniver, is a
steely-yet-fragile grande dame who seduces the doctor (not
literally) from the first. Roderick, a gruff, scarred, sensitive
victim of war, shuts himself in his study in a vain and obsessive
effort to make the estate solvent again. He is the first to be
affected by the spooky doings in the house. “I don’t
need a doctor so much as a … vicar or
something,” he says to Faraday. Calling The
Caroline and Dr. Faraday can’t be categorized so easily.
Her unpretty looks and straightforward manner resist a ladylike
destiny. Although she grew up privileged, she works with her hands
--- a necessity, since the family’s “staff” now
consists of one maid and a part-time cook --- and doesn’t
make a big deal of it; she is honest, direct, and natural rather
than artificially charming, like her mother. Dr. Faraday, too, is
sympathetic, though less and less reliable a narrator as the story
progresses. You see his detachment falter as he becomes suffused
with longing for Caroline and, even more, for Hundreds and what it
represents: to be accepted, to have a place, to be
somebody (in a fit of rage, Roderick cries, “How did
you manage to get such a footing in this house? You’re not a
part of this family! You’re no one!”) You feel the
doctor’s insecurity; you cringe at his faux pas; and
ultimately you pray for him to step away --- not to be captured by
this dream of status and belonging.
Even if you are not normally into spooky reads, don’t
dismiss this book. Although it’s disturbing, it isn’t a
horror-fest. Unlike Stephen King, with his baroquely detailed
accounts of evil, Waters is explicit enough to be suspenseful yet
not so much that you are repelled. Her ghost story is not just a
spine-tingling yarn but a means of exploring how profoundly England
was altered and, yes, haunted by the war. THE LITTLE STRANGER is
smart, satisfyingly mysterious, and infinitely diverting.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading it deep into
the night. (If I were you, I’d keep all the lights on.)
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 30, 2010