The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, Riverhead Books, 2009
Caution: It is difficult to write about The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and not give anything away, so I’m going to say this post might contain spoilers.
The Little Stranger is a book about a haunted house. Sarah Waters evokes emotion masterfully here. It’s not heart-pounding terror or a nauseated response to some gruesome revelation. She evokes dread, dread and a growing sense of anxiety that has you peering into the shadows and flinching at the creaks and sighs of your own house.
Hundreds Hall is a stately home in the English countryside, inhabited by the Ayres family. In 1949, when the story begins, the house is in near ruin, bottoming out of a slow slide to decay that started in the 20s. Three Ayreses live there now, the last of the line.
The story is told by Dr. Faraday, a local country doctor. His parents were servant class—his mother was a nursemaid at Hundred Hall for a time—who sacrificed and saved to send their son to medical school. Now Faraday is a practicing physician, not as successful as he’d like, and is in limbo, no longer servant class, unsure where he belongs. Hundreds Hall has been a lodestone for him, the Great House, the symbol of the old aristocracy. When he is first called there for a medical visit he is shocked by the state of the place; the untended park, the overgrown garden, the leaking roof and the shut-up rooms. He is, however, charmed by the Ayres family and accepts their fantasy of genteel impoverishment. Waters opens the book slowly, mostly to let the reader see the state of Hundreds in the brutally honest light of day. Mrs. Ayres, the grand dame, is unable to do much except pine after the great old days. Her older surviving child, Caroline, forms a tenuous friendship with Faraday, while Roderick, the youngest and the only son, wounded in World War II, struggles to maintain the estate.
Waters is sure of herself and her skill, and takes the time she needs. It isn’t until the disastrous cocktail party on page 92 that the first terrible thing happens. It seems, to the characters at least, to be a horrible but natural occurrence. The reader knows better. After the event and its aftermath, both of which show Faraday in action, as a doctor, and at his best, things quiet down at Hundreds for a time. This is stillness, not peace, a coiled stillness fraught with speculation.
Roderick is the second victim of the thing—Caroline refers to it as an “energy”—that haunts Hundreds. Later in the book a character lectures Faraday about poltergeist activity, and how it appears in places where there is a reservoir of repressed emotion. There is plenty of repression at Hundreds. Mrs. Ayres, the Lady of the Manor, has never felt love for her two surviving children, and still mourns Susan, the daughter who died before they were born. Caroline, who during the war had a taste of freedom, of life, had her leash jerked up short when she was called back to nurse her injured brother. Caroline, in fact, now lives her life in service to an estate that, because of British entailment laws, she is destined to lose. Roderick is more crippled by the responsibility of the failing property than by his damaged leg.
Faraday, while reporting this all to us faithfully, is blind to it himself, willfully choosing to see the sight of the Ayreses nesting like a family of raccoons in one or two sound rooms of the house as gallant and eccentric, instead of sordid. He mentions, but does not deal with, his own emotional issues; small resentments as he is constantly reminded of his “place;” worry over the upcoming National Service and what it will mean for his practice; shame over the way he treated his parents; yearning to see Hundreds the way he remembers it when he was a child.
Early in the book Mrs. Ayres gives Faraday a photograph. It is an old family photo, with a woman in a maid’s uniform, who is probably Faraday’s mother. The gift is a kindness, but it is also a message, one that Faraday never quite deciphers, although we do.
The thing that infests Hundreds is angry and ravenous, and it devours every scrap of joy or hope before it begins to feast on the physical lives of the inhabitants. Faraday, uniquely qualified to see what is really happening, never does, not even at the end of the book. The line between the material demands of a huge, crumbling building, and a supernatural hunger, is fine but not blurry. Waters knows exactly when to step over it.
This is a book that sits with you after you’ve finished it, not unlike the haunting entity itself. Once you’ve closed the cover, you’ll think back to the timing of certain things, and scenes that were merely frightening will become horrifying in retrospect. That’s what Waters wants to have happen, and she makes it happen perfectly.