The Little Stranger By Sarah Waters

In the 50s, old houses were out of time in England. Faraday, a country doctor, thus got to know the Ayers family, whom he knew as a child, and who today find themselves isolated and very poor.
Little by little, strange events follow one another in the house.
The frequency of these accidents quickly becomes worrying, and we dive into a mysterious atmosphere and unhealthy ...
We oscillate from the start in a slightly gothic atmosphere; the house seems enormous, humid and scary; the characters are pretty strange; some maybe not quite what they seem.
The writing is quality, and the rise of suspense is in crescendo. 466 The one thing I’ve learned from reading my first two Sarah Waters novels (Tipping the Velvet and The Paying Guests) is the value of patience. She starts things slowly, building character and the environment with deliberate care and copious detail. Plot is secondary, and it can take awhile for the endgame to come into focus. With The Little Stranger, however, my patience nearly ran out.

The Little Stranger is a bit of a departure for Waters in that she plays things straight. Sexually, I mean. Her historical fiction – based on what I’ve read, and what I have on my shelf – is usually told through a gay/lesbian viewpoint. Not here. In this novel, the main character/first-person narrator is Dr. Faraday who, on account of being a man, is most certainly not a lesbian. He is also not very interesting.

The Little Stranger is Waters’ entry into pure genre territory. Specifically, this is an old fashioned ghost story featuring that most reliable of settings: the splendid old haunted house. I love it when talented authors work within genre trappings. And since autumn is approaching, I decided to get a jump on my seasonal reading.

The house in question, here, is Hundreds Hall, a Georgian-style mansion located in rural Warwickshire, England. Hundreds Hall has been the seat of the Ayres family for over two hundred years. When the novel opens, the Hundreds is in decline. We are in the late 1940s, in Great Britain’s post-World War II, post-Empire transition to the mean. The house – and the society it represents – is crumbling. Most of the servants have left (Faraday’s mother, naturally, once worked there). Old estates are being carved up by developers so that the peasants can have their own hovels. There is even the specter of – gasp! – socialized medicine on the horizon. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the offstage presence of Clement Attlee looms far more terrifying in the characters’ minds than any paranormal activity in the Hundreds.

Only three Ayres are left in Hundreds Hall, the siblings Roderick and Caroline, and their mother, Mrs. Ayres. Mrs. Ayres is the fading matriarch, an avatar of the old days now reduced to reusing postage stamps and rereading letters from her late husband (she is also still in mourning for a dead daughter). Roderick was in the RAF during the war, and has returned badly injured and – perhaps – psychologically unsound. Caroline is the eccentric spinster-to-be, a pure Waters creation:

Her hair was a pale English brown and might, with proper treatment, have been handsome, but I had never seen it tidy, and just now it fell drily to her shoulders, as if she had washed it with kitchen soap and then forgotten to comb it. Added to that, she had the worst dress-sense of any woman I ever knew. She was wearing boyish flat sandals and a badly fitting pale summer dress, not at all flattering to her wide hips and large bosom. Her eyes were hazel, highly set; her face was long with an angular jaw, her profile flattish. Only her mouth, I thought, was good: surprisingly large, well-shaped, and mobile.

Each of these characters is extremely well-drawn, carefully described, and fully realized. The house, as well, is given its proper due as a major player in the drama. It is wonderfully described with the kind of painstaking care that du Maurier gave to Manderley.

The story is set in motion when Dr. Faraday is summoned to Hundreds Hall due to the illness of Betty, one of the few remaining servants. It turns out that Betty isn’t really sick; rather, she’s creeped out by something in the house. Dr. Faraday makes a good impression on the family, and soon he is returning on a regular basis to provide treatment for Roderick’s injuries. It is never quite clear whether Faraday is being drawn by the house by some supernatural force, or whether he is simply a bourgeois scrambler trying to up-jump a class or two during a period of social upheaval.

Waters approaches her story from an oblique angle. She is working with the fundamentals of a haunted house tale, but instead of tackling it head on, she is content to nibble at the edges. The novel takes on a certain rhythm. There will be a mysterious or unexplained event at the house. That event will be given an explanation and forgotten. Then there will be a bunch of other side-plots and digressions until something else happens. With that, the cycle begins again. Instead of creating tension, this structuring releases it like a leaky steam valve. The Little Stranger fails to generate any chills. It is a novel filled with atmosphere; unfortunately for a horror story, none of them is dread.

Part of the problem is that Waters is clearly more interested in her sideshows than in the central mystery of the haunting of Hundreds Hall. This is too bad, because the chief sideshow is a tepid, awkward “romance” (yes, this romance deserves air-quotes) between Caroline and Dr. Faraday. Caroline is indifferent and, in a different Waters novel, would be gay. Dr. Faraday is closer to asexual. Unsurprisingly, this supplies all the erotic tension of a beer-league slow-pitch softball game. I can’t be sure, but I feel like The Little Stranger is an attempt by Waters not to be pigeonholed. She achieved great success with her excessive, gay Victoriana settings. Here, she seems to be providing a corrective. A book that is subdued and sedate, without a giant dildo anywhere in sight.

(The Haunting of Hill House has to be an inspiration for any haunted house story. I was looking forward to Waters being able to play with the psychosexual undercurrents that simmered beneath the surface of Shirley Jackson’s novel. I must say I was surprised, and I guess a bit disappointed, that the undercurrents of this novel were financial distress).

Another issue is that Waters seems to get stuck between styles. This is Gothic horror material that Waters conveys in a realist style. I think this approach can work. Indeed, I think you can create a certain amount of tension by grounding the Gothic elements in the real. Waters, though, is far more comfortable in the real, building her setting, defining her characters. When it comes time for the Gothic elements to intrude, she doesn’t seem to entirely commit to them.

I also disagree with Waters decision to utilize a first-person narrator for this type of story. I’m against first-person narrators in general (I have my reasons), but in a book like this, it extinguishes any possibility of fright. There are three major set pieces involving the haunts of Hundreds Hall. Dr. Faraday, since he does not live at the house, is not present for two of them. Thus, when it comes time to relate what happened, Faraday must deliver the narrative secondhand, after it has already happened, and happened to others. There is always a layer between the reader and the story; here, there is a second, unnecessary layer. It’s the difference between me reading The Little Stranger, and me having a buddy explain the book to me after he’s read it.

There is something to be said for subtlety. I appreciated how, early on, Waters is content to be deliberate. Things are a little spooky but mostly not. It’s a nice tease. As things unfold, however, you get the sensation that the tease might be all there is. Waters is not overly concerned with unraveling the mysterious presence – if one exists at all – in the Hundreds. She is far more intent on exploring the Ayres’ existential crisis. No ghost or goblin can terrorize the Ayres family so well as the National Health Service or the rise of the professional class. The novel’s big conclusion, which should have been macabre (or something; it should have been something), is instead presented in such a plodding fashion that it’s almost like Waters is pulling a prank.

I had hoped, when I picked this up, that I’d see Sarah Waters doing a Shirley Jackson or Stephen King impression. Instead, it is Sarah Waters doing a suppressed version of Sarah Waters. It just doesn’t work.
466 I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district… I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

What I liked most about this, my first Sarah Waters' book, were the striking descriptions of the magnificent Georgian mansion. Once a splendid home that was renowned throughout the district of Warwickshire, Hundreds Hall now stands in a state of ruination, due to the effects of World War II and the Ayres’s declining family fortune. The characters are well-drawn, including the dignified Mrs. Ayres, her surly son Roderick who returned from the war with his share of battle wounds, her slightly awkward yet intelligent daughter Caroline, and the ingratiating family doctor, Faraday. From the time he first set eyes on Hundreds Hall as a child, Dr. Faraday has had a peculiar fascination with both the house as well as its inhabitants. When summoned to the estate to tend to the so-called illness of Betty, the newest family maid, Dr. Faraday rapidly becomes immersed in the Ayres’s lives and their attendant troubles.

The novel is constructed skillfully from the outset to be an eerie Gothic ghost story, with the rambling and decaying manor and a series of baffling and disturbing happenings. The story is written as a first-person narrative, from Dr. Faraday’s point of view. Now, I generally don’t find fault with books written in the first-person, as long as done so effectively. In this case, Dr. Faraday is not directly involved in many of the menacing goings-on at the house. Rather, he recounts the events told to him by the occupants of Hundreds Hall. He tells us what he heard from Caroline, or Mrs. Ayres, or Roderick, or in some cases the maid, Betty. The suspense was subsequently watered down for me as a result. Dr. Faraday is a famously unreliable narrator as well – which is not a complaint in and of itself; however, his removal from the events as well as his questionable credibility took me out of the plot a bit. There was no single character I liked, nor one sufficiently detestable for me to revel in my distaste – not even the purported ghost! Perhaps I unfairly kept making comparisons to one of my all-time favorite novels, Rebecca. I was searching for my Mrs. Danvers, trying to sympathize with the narrator, and looking for a climax that would electrify me. It just didn’t quite happen. I was left with too many questions and felt a shred of dissatisfaction as a result. Since finishing the book, I have drawn my own conclusion that I would like to put to Ms. Waters. I suspect she didn’t mean for me to truly know her intent, however, so I will have to be content with my own interpretation.

Despite my slightly lukewarm review, there were enough redeeming qualities to this novel that I will certainly read another title in this author’s repertoire at some point in time.

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. 466 This review is going to be like one of those fridge poetry thingymabobs because I'm tired and coherency isn't a top priority of mine right now.
Here are some words and phrases that came to my mind after finishing this book, in no particular order.

Atmospheric | Subtle| DON'T LOOK THROUGH THE KEYHOLE! | Observations are almost clinical at points | Man, I need to read more of Sarah Waters' books | Passionate | Perfectly paced | Holy twisteroo, Batman | WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?! | Don't go upstairs and investigate, you fruit loop! | Grow a pair, Doctor. | Something bad is going to happen to that dog, isn't it?! | Sinister | SERIOUSLY, QUIT WITH THE KEYHOLE! | Astonishing | I wonder if the Tipping the Velvet adaptation is still available on Iplayer | What the eff? | Um, OK... I'm sure my door wasn't open a second ago. | The TV adaptation of this that is inevitably going to be shown at Christmas on the BBC is going to be as terrifying/cracked out/what the hell is going on?-esque as 'Whistle and I'll Come To You'. Yeah, thanks for ruining Christmas for me, John Hurt. | Always listen to the raving crazy when it comes to ghosts and/or the apocalypse- they have never been wrong.| Remarkable. |

Delete/rearrange as you please.

I only have one gripe.
466 Si os gustan las casas encantadas este es vuestro libro, porque pocas tan memorables como Hundreds Hall.
La historia es una mezcla perfecta de literatura inglesa de principios del XX y de un relato gótico de fantasmas. Si os gustan las dos cosas os va a encantar, en cambio si solo queréis puro terror se os hará pesada y si sois miedosos sufriréis un poco con ella.
Yo que soy gran aficionada de ambas cosas la disfruté muchísimo y me tuvo atrapada de principio a fin, aún con ese estilo pausado y cargado de una atmósfera asfixiante.

Aunque me encantó el retrato de los personajes tan sutil y efectivo, para mi lo mejor sin duda es cómo la autora muestra el clasismo británico, las diferencias entre clases sociales y la decadencia de la nobleza (muy al estilo de 'Lo que queda del día' o 'Retorno a Brideshead'). La parte más sobrenatural la disfruté bastante también, aunque más al inicio que al final, porque según empiezas la historia saboreas mucho las descripciones (tanto de lugares como de personajes) y en el desenlace es todo más frenético.

En fin, que la he disfrutado mucho y creo que es la lectura perfecta para estas fechas. 466


Departing from her preferred 19th century context, as she did in her last book The Night Watch, Sarah Waters sets her latest novel in post-World War II Warwickshire and tries her hand at an Old Dark House, Haunted-Or-Is-It story in the Jamesian tradition of subtle, ambiguous psychological chillers (The Turn of the Screw, The Beast In the Jungle. But while James intuitively understood that the atmosphere of such tales depends on sustaining the unsettling mood, and so they’re best realized – and indeed intensified - by the concentrated form of a novella or short story, Waters’ book trudges on for more than 450 pages, grinding all the tension and eeriness out of her narrative as it inches glacially forward like a literary Bataan Death March. No suspense story can maintain its energy at this pace, it’s like one of those jazz singers who sing standards so slowly that the melody disintegrates into just a sequence of individual disconnected notes, drained of any musical or emotional meaning. Waters is a good stylist, and there are sections of the book where you can see what she was trying for – the evocation of the house, Hundreds Hall, and its unsettling decline is especially successful – and I respect her for trying something new, but overall I didn’t think she achieved what she was aiming for, and that surprised me. She seems like too smart a writer to have fallen into this particular trap. 466 Dr. Faraday is called over to Hundreds Hall on summer day when someone on the estate falls ill. While there he strikes up a friendship with the family and in the coming months is pulled into their problems. Hundreds Hall is said to be haunted and as the months pass by it becomes more and more confusing to tell whether the effect of the house on the people living in it is due to it being haunted or the steady deterioration of the estate and the status of the people who inhabit it in a world changing around them.

Really well written if a tad bit long. I love when authors leave things ambiguous and it could go either way. There was one thing that annoyed me though was Dr.Faraday's obsession with the Ayres and his desperation to be friends with them. I just couldn't stand his constant feelings of inferiority stemming from his childhood and how he still so desperately needed everyone's approval. I know that was the whole point but it was so irritating. It was really well done though and his obsession with the estate really just added to the whole creepy feeling surrounding it. The book did build up really slowly though and there isn't any clear outcome about what was happening in the house so if that sort of thing will bother you I would skip this one. 466 sigh. i tried to read this slowly and still finished it in two days. i suck. but i can't help it - she writes so well, and her stories are so damn compelling; the pages virtually turn themselves. but sorry, ladies, no lesbians this time. i never thought i would see the day. what else is sarah waters for, if not lesbian love?? evidently, dickensian ghost stories in postwar settings... ooooorrrr iiiiisss iiiitttt?

come to my blog! 466 If you are looking for a traditional horror novel, you won't find it in
The Little Stranger. This book is not a variant on The Shining that just happens to be set in post-WWII Britain: it is essentially historical fiction that happens to have a touch of the supernatural about it. And as historical fiction it is excellent. Sarah Waters evokes the atmosphere not only of another time (1947) but, for Americans at least, another place as well because in many ways The Little Stranger is a very British novel. In her depictions of the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall, the author shows us the final death throes of an entire British way of life that had lasted for centuries in one form or another. Whatever our modern feelings of distate for a formal class system may be, the author makes us feel how devastating the loss of it was for those at the top, and how it left them adrift, not only physically due to lack of servants, but ethically as well: for if they are not, as Mrs. Ayres describes, an example of all that is good for those below them, what purpose do they serve?

Another lingering remnant of that way of life that plays an important role in the story is the idea that what you can achieve is - at least partially - determined by who your parents were in local society. Dr. Faraday, the son of a shop-keeper and a mother who had been in-service, still feels the awkwardness of being the first in his family to rise above their place. The resistance of what is left of county society to the new ideas of equality and independence is very obvious when they gather at Hundreds Hall for a small evening party and find Dr. Faraday in attendance, drink in hand. Regardless of his evening dress, they immediately assume he is there only because someone is ill. It has to be explained to them that he is there as a guest and even then there is some awkwardness, not because of who Dr. Faraday is, but because of who his parents were. Dr. Faraday may be a perfectly nice man and a skilled doctor, but he's still not quite their sort.

If immersion in the atmosphere of a historical period does not interest you, you will not like The Little Stranger. A great deal of what is horrifying in the novel - and it is horrifying - is intimately tied to that cultural period of British history. If the supernatural incidents are pulled out of the story and examined strictly for their shock value a la modern horror novels, they will be disappointing. This book is the result of many different threads, interwoven so skillfully that they cannot be separated and still make any sense. The supernatural aspects of the story are also of the more ambigous variety. If you enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House, The Turn of the Screw or even the more modern A Good and Happy Child you will enjoy the frightening elements of The Little Stranger. If you prefer your supernatural forces to come with complete explanations, this book may feel incomplete to you.

Link to an interesting review of this book by NPR.
466 Any reader of Fingersmith will know how Sarah Waters drags the old tricks of ancient fiction out of retirement and makes them dance for us again. There it was Dickens and Wilkie Collins; here its Henry James and his Turn of the Screw, The Fall of the House of Usher, and any number of novels and movies with huge crumbling stately homes at their centre. Operating where the psychological and the supernatural ooze along together, The Little Stranger unhurriedly creeps the reader into its Gothic murderousness. Lightly and effortlessly the political-cultural background weaves into the tale, which is set in 1947, as the radical Labour government steams ahead with such socialist solutions as the National Health Service, and the upper classes, personified by the blighted Ayreses, crumble and visibly wither. One of the many pleasures of this wonderful novel….

No, I’m so sorry. That is the review I would have liked to write.

But I can’t.

Sorry Sarah, but, you know, what were you thinking? You who wrote the mighty Fingersmith? And who latterly thrilled my very ventricles with The Paying Guests?
(In parenthesis : is she trying to win Most Boring Novel Title of the Year? The Paying Guests? The Night Watchman? The Little Stranger? What next, The Middle Manager, The Folded Knapkin, The Acceptable Reservation ?)

For here we have a lengthy tale of a working class lad made good, he’s become a doctor, and the local decayed upper class family he befriends. These toffs have the stately home and the land but they have no money at all, so the whole pile is gradually falling to bits. For 500 pages.

Yes, it’s a metaphor. Like all huge old houses, or castles. Dracula, Gormenghast, Bleak House. The Shining. Manderley. Wuthering Heights. Hill House.

A typical passage from The Little Stranger

A couple of panes in the window were cracked, the sash frame crumbling around them. A corner hand-basin gave off a sour, uriney smell, and the boards beneath were almost rotting where a leaking tap had dripped. The wallpaper had a raised pattern of loops and arabesques that had once, she recalled suddenly, been very colourful. It had been painted over with a drab distemper, which the damp was turning to a sort of curd.

It’s a long slow mournful crepuscular celebration of decay, but what, we may ask, is the point of it all? That the upper classes were clapped out and finished by the convulsing social order of the post-WW2 radicalism? What nonsense. A lot of families like the Ayreses had to look sharp and reposition themselves – get with the new land management and farming sciences for example, or open their vast mansions to the public – otherwise I’m sure some did go the way of the unpleasant posh tossers here exhibited. But has the upper class gone away? Oh no, I don’t think so!

The 7th Duke of Westminster, 25-year-old Hugh Grosvenor, is now the heir to a legacy worth more than £9bn.
Thanks to a series of trusts, which are thought to date to the death of the 2nd Duke in 1953, Hugh and his three sisters will avoid having to pay the 40% levy ordinary families are faced with when parents die.
“For people who are really wealthy, inheritance tax has become an optional choice,” said John Christensen, director of the Tax Justice Network. “If you are lucky to be born into a very wealthy family you will be untaxed. For most normal people this is extraordinary and unacceptable.”

The Guardian, 10 August, 2016

Reading The Little Stranger one might think that 1947 was Britain’s more melancholy and sepia tinted version of St Petersburg 1917.

So then we have the spooky-ookums stuff. As with all these rascally writers, they have their cake and they eat it. They will never come out and declare this stuff is either in their characters’ unbalanced psyches or that there really is a poltygeist moving ashtrays three inches to the left and knocking from inside the cupboard and what all. No, they are perfectly ambiguous all the time. It’s a cop out. Fans of this kind of guff like to stroke their chins and ponder. Sarah Waters even puts the rational point of view centre stage, in the brain of her protagonist – but what a meanminded insidious creep this guy is. If he was the last rationalist in the world gimme the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In the end this was a story where a succession of unpleasant things happen to a small number of unpleasant people.

But hey, at least I broke my run of seven three-star novels!

One postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country physician, is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once impressive and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners—mother, son, and daughter—are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become intimately entwined with his. The Little Stranger

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