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 oth