book: The Little Stranger (2009) by Sarah Waters


A few years ago I read Waters’s The Paying Guests and, while I was in many ways impressed, I didn’t actually love the book. It was beautifully written but didn’t seem to me to deliver what it should for a novel of such prodigious length. Waters, I thought, was an author I ought to keep an eye out for, but only lackadaisically so.

My opinions, dear reader, have changed.

It’s 1947, somewhere in Warwickshire in England’s northish west, and middle-aged Dr. Faraday is called to the local manor, Hundreds Hall, to help the surviving members of the Ayres family. It’s not the first time he’s been there: as a child he was sneaked into the place by his mother, who’d once spent several years as a servant to the Ayreses.

Terrible things begin to happen in Hundreds Hall. A visiting child has her face savaged by the normally equable family dog. Roderick Ayres, the son and heir, starts to be tormented by events he describes as supernatural — objects being moved around, fires being set — but that Faraday assumes must be delusional: Roderick is packed off to a nursing home where he grows madder and madder.

If anything the inexplicable events grow more violent and more terrifying after Roderick’s departure from the scene. The phone and the servant bells start ringing at all hours of the day and night, likewise the speaking tube linking the nursery to the rest of the house. There seems to be a malevolent presence in the house, and the family start to assume it must be the spirit of Susan, the daughter who died in infancy . . .

And Faraday starts to fall in love with the grown-up Ayres daughter, Caroline, and she apparently with him.

I’ve read so many descriptions of this novel that call it a ghost story that I despair. The text makes absolutely plain, spelling it out virtually in words of one syllable, that this is not a ghost story but a poltergeist story. To those who’d protest that this is a matter of “same difference” — after all, the word “poltergeist” translates as “banging ghost” (no sniggers in the back row, please) — I’d suggest they do some basic digging. A century or more ago the researchers of the SPR (an organization that I both respect profoundly and believe to have been misguided) concluded that ghosts and poltergeists were completely different phenomena: ghosts (if they existed) were relics of the dead, poltergeists were manifestations of exotic psychology.

Waters explains this difference in some detail in her novel, even giving the reader some bibliographic references (and more in her Acknowledgements at the back). Most of the people at the center of the tragedy that’s playing out in Hundreds Hall assume a ghost is responsible (unless, like Faraday and his medical confreres, they blame madness), but the novelist herself points the finger directly at a poltergeist. As far as my memory advises me, and I’m going back some while here, most of the activities of the poltergeist afflicting Hundreds Hall replicate those that supposedly terrorized the occupants of Borley Rectory, “The Most Haunted House in England” (as quack parapsychologist Harry Price called it).

A poltergeist or, if you want to use the SPR’s terminology, a phantasm of the living.

Rant over, until I get some Goodreads asshole coming along to tell me I should spend less time discussing what the book’s about, because after all you can get that from the effin blurb, can’t you, and more time giving my jejune reactions to it: Do I think the book’s True Fab or Suckso?

In short, I think it’s True Fab. A lot of the time I was reading it I was hearing the voice of Wilkie Collins, even though of course the novel’s set some decades after Collins’s time. Others have compared The Little Stranger to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and I could go along withy that too: The Turn of the Screw isn’t a poltergeist novel but it shares with The Little Stranger the quality that it can be read as either a record of true events or a tale of misperception.

Leaving aside the poltergeist aspect and all the gloriously spooky moments, what about the novel itself? I wasn’t around in 1947, but, as far as I can gather, the social details of what’s also a painstakingly beautifully wrought novel are correct. All the time I was reading I felt as if I was there in 1947.

I’ve been lucky enough in the past three months or so to have read several novels that I’ve automatically boosted to my (pretty large) lifetime-favorites mental shelf. (All have been by women, which is something I have to think about.) The Little Stranger has arrived on that shelf with a pretty goddam firm slam.

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