‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters
Author: Susan Stinson
June 15, 2010
Even simply listing the names of Sarah Waters’s previous novels causes a little rise of excitement which is a visitation from the intense pleasures (especially, perhaps, for a lesbian, but clearly for many others, as well) of reading them: Tipping the Velvet. Affinity. Fingersmith. The Night Watch. Brilliance. The Little Stranger, out in paperback this month, lives up to these precedents without an explicit lesbian theme, but with the same intensity that raises specters in the mind long after the first reading.
The novel is about the haunting of Hundreds Hall, a grand old house in the English countryside, just after World War Two. The book is truly tense and frightening in the great tradition of haunted house stories. The narrator is middle-aged Dr. Farraday, who comes to know the family of the house decades after his mother was a servant there. The doctor is called in to treat young Betty, the household maid, who finds the atmosphere disturbing. The Ayres have been in the house for many generations, supported by the labor of countless servants and farm workers, some of whom they joke about as if they were pets, but they are in a postwar world of social restructuring and extreme economies.
Elegant, charming Mrs. Ayres is embarrassed to be caught reusing a stamp that has already been through the mail; her daughter Caroline does plenty of work that roughens her hands; and her son Roderick, in constant pain from a war wound, is overwhelmed with trying to manage the estate. The new electrical lines haven’t reached them yet, and the family can’t afford to run the generator, so, at night, the house is lit by lanterns and candles.
Dr. Farraday, whose soothing arguments for rational explanations of terrifying events are often augmented by a quick exam of the person telling him what happened, has a manner which suggests the gentlemen swapping yarns over cigars (or, in the case of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on the deck of a ship) whose conversations frame so many classic stories of fear and adventure. He gives glimpses of awful things as if from a distance, but the novel reaches around him to pull the reader in close to Hundreds Hall as its fittings skitter, hang and crack with incomplete ruin.
Every detail of the setting, from Mrs. Ayres’s rings and Caroline’s boyish sandals to meager post-war teas and dance floors powdered with chalk, gives the sensation of living in a very specific moment in a changing world. The house, with its pink and liver-colored marble floor and mahogany spiral staircase in the entrance hall, its billiard room-turned-bedroom with tobacco-stained ceiling, its gardens, library, and octagonal saloon, is, as one character says, “a sort of lovely monster.”
There are strange marks on the walls. A door slams shut. There is a whistling noise. Lost cuff links cause trouble. The reader shivers, wonders, and braces for worse. Terribly, it comes.
The Little Stranger offers every satisfaction to be had from the story of a haunting. It evokes the dread and insight of such books as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Drooping yellow wallpaper pays tribute to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and a stopped clock marks an especially rich symbiosis with Dickens’s Great Expectations, with its ancient wedding dress in flames. The characters in the book, as individual and specific as they are, are haunted by the collective trauma of war, by history, by class. The book offers an unsettling illumination of the surprising ways that fury evoked by class inequities can take on force, even as the structures that created it begin to shift and crumble.