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The Little Stranger


The Little Stranger

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 life.”

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 says.

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 Exorcist….

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

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

  • Publication Date: April 30, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1594488800
  • ISBN-13: 9781594488801