by Sarah Waters
The Little Stranger is the first of Sarah Water’s books that I’ve read, and for me is a rare departure from the genre fiction I usually read and into the more “literary” end of the market (if that isn’t too artificial a distinction — I’ve always had my doubts). It does for instance list Edgar Allen Poe among its influences (The Fall of the House of Usher being the most obvious comparison), something it shares with the horror fiction that I write, and from what I’ve heard seemed to generate a great many accolades, including many from the genre fiction readers and writers that I know. In fact it was one of those books where I seemed to hear recommendations from several directions at once, and eventually took the hint that I’d better get hold of it and see what all the fuss was about. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.
The story is set in 1947 in a country house in Warwickshire, and centres on the house itself and the Ayres family who own it, trying to come to terms with both their crippling financial position and a changing society around them that no longer seems to have a place for gentrified old families like their own. The characters are particularly well drawn, starting with Lady Ayres, definitely a product of an earlier age and struggling more than either of her children to adapt to the changing world around her. Her son, Roderick, comes across well as the initially aloof master of the house, who we then learn has been living with the trauma of his wartime air crash, the injuries he sustained, and the death of his navigator (and he has a lot more to contend with when events at the house take a turn of their own). And Caroline Ayres is similarly vivid (I could visualise all these characters, and even hear their voices as they spoke, with no effort of imagination whatsoever) as the plain, practical, no-nonsense lass who served her time in the Wrens, loved every minute of it, and came back home to strut around the grounds in her mismatched shawls and hats with her old dog Gyp at her side.
However the book is written in the first person, with the local doctor (called simply “Faraday” — we never hear his first name) as the viewpoint character, and although things are left ambiguous as to the true perpetrator of what leads the family to its eventual destruction, my personal feeling is that Faraday is at the centre of the action in more than just viewpoint.
For “The Little Stranger” itself is a poltergeist, and as poltergeists are usually the projection of an individual (as opposed to a haunting which is centred on a location) the book is in some ways (but not exclusively) a whodunit — who exactly is behind what happens? Whose subconscious is projecting itself into the house, victimising the family one by one, driving them insane and leading ultimately to two of their deaths?
Sarah Waters herself has said that although the book is ambiguous in this regard, there are clues scattered through it as to who is the source of the paranormal activity (I read somewhere that she said the final line is the clue — if so then things aren’t so ambiguous at all). However I think a lot of the circumstantial evidence points to Faraday. Part of him has wanted that house ever since he first went there as a child, attending a garden party with no right to enter the house itself but being sneaked into the basement-level servants’ area by his mother, only for him to then sneak into the family area and rip off part of the plaster mouldings as a souvenir (using, incidentally, the same winding staircase where the servant girl Betty later gets her first inklings of something unnatural sharing the house with them). It’s almost as if young Faraday left a part of himself there on that staircase, that lay dormant until he happened to return in adult life. And as an adult the admiration that he felt for the house and the class it represented has now become a deep-seated feeling of alienation, an inability to fit in with either the working class background he came from (he was bullied for getting a place at a good school), or the upper class family he now insinuates himself amongst. For instance when he recounts taking the plaster moulding he describes his having been an “obedient boy”, adding “I wasn’t a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it — or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it” — i.e. even back then he saw himself as extraordinary, and deserving of a place in the higher strata of society where he spends the rest of the book trying to pretend he belongs.
And I think “pretend” is the right word here — he concocts reasons to keep coming back to the house, imagining he has a place as a friend of the family, first by arranging to treat Roderick’s leg, later by taking up their offer of using the grounds as a short-cut, coming and going at will, calling Roderick “Rod”, even walking into the house completely unannounced on one occasion, clearly making Caroline and Mrs Ayres feel intruded upon. In fact even in his own narration it’s clear that although they may genuinely like him, to a large extent he is being humoured and tolerated by the Ayres — for instance he only gets invited to the party because he happens to be there on the day it is first discussed (Mrs Ayres’ “But of course, doctor, you must come too” can only be an invitation for the sake of politeness). And I think it’s very telling that at the party, when he realises the true reason Mrs Ayres decided to hold it (to match Caroline up with Baker-Hyde’s brother-in-law), and having already been humiliated by one of the guests assuming he was only there because someone was sick (another reminder that he’ll never truly fit in with these people), that is when the poltergeist startles the dog or pinches it or whatever it does to make it bite the child, propelling Faraday and his medical skills to the limelight as the saviour of the hour.
Of course just because it is part of Faraday that is doing these things, occupying the house like the “ravenous shadow-creature … spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house” that Seeley refers to when telling Faraday that the whole poltergeist explanation might not be so outlandish after all (how ironic for the arch-sceptic that it is his poltergeist) — just because he probably is the true culprit doesn’t mean that he is an unpleasant character in any way. He seems very immature emotionally (the bits where he is rushing Caroline into wedding arrangements and completely fails to spot her true feelings were almost painful to read) but he treats Betty very well when he first visits to examine her and realises she is play-acting her illness, and similarly treats the Ayres family very well, even the dog Gyp who he eventually puts to sleep for biting the little girl — if he is behind events, it’s some nasty, malicious part of him that has detached itself from the rest of his psyche in order to act on his sense of social dissatisfaction. Faraday himself is actually a very sympathetic character, a good conscientious doctor, and someone whose main desire is to feel that he fits in.
Now I’m hammering pretty hard on the idea that Faraday was the root cause of events, but it would be wrong not to consider the other options (plus the slight plot point that when he first returns to the house in adult life, Betty is already aware of something nasty there). One possibility that was at the forefront of my mind was Susan, Mrs Ayres’ first daughter who died while still a child. Certainly it is Susan’s voice that Mrs Ayres hears, calling for her to come and join her (which she eventually does, hanging herself in a locked room with her body covered in little bites and scratches, after saying less than a day before that when Susan comes to her she “isn’t always kind” (great line!). However I think it would be too obvious, even if you factor in the idea of Susan wanting not only to be reunited with her mother, but also to get rid of the later children who usurped her. Then there is Betty — poltergeists are often associated with teenage girls, and she is the first to pick up on something strange happening — but again this seems too obvious; she is perceptive at that age, but probably not the source of events. Then there is Roderick, stressed beyond all comprehension as the family’s fortunes fall apart around him, but he spends the second half of the book removed from the hall and under sedation so I don’t think it’s him either. And as for Caroline and Mrs Ayres — they end up dead at the hands of the poltergeist, and it would be unlikely to kill its own host (if host is the right word). I did also consider someone else from further back in the house’s history, maybe Faraday’s mother (who appears weirdly distorted in the photograph he is given as if she moved when the picture was taken — have I seen distorted photos as evidence of something spooky in another book or film?). However I couldn’t pin it down conclusively to her either.
So Faraday it is, I think — sleeping in the car the night Caroline dies, dreaming of himself walking to the house, passing like smoke through the gates, then appearing to Caroline as some hideous apparition of himself (“You!”) to send her (push her?) flying over the balcony to her death. And if the poltergeist really is the manifestation of Faraday’s dissatisfaction and desire to have the house as his own, it certainly gets what it wants when three years on Faraday continues to let himself into the abandoned hall like some kind of creepy obsessive who can’t let the place go even though the people he knew there are gone, never to return.
As for the writing itself, Sarah Waters definitely deserves her reputation for skilful use of language, characterisation and setting. The build-up of tension was very well handled too as paranormal events within the house became more and more destructive without ever being overdone. The story Roderick tells early on about the poltergeist playing tricks with him as he tries to dress for the party was very spooky (I could imagine it as if it was happening to me, it was described so well, and if it had been me seeing those things then I would have almost keeled over). The stories Faraday hears of Rod walking into doors he knew he’d shut and tripping over furniture which has moved in the night had a real feel of mounting dread to them too. And the bit where Mrs Ayres is locked in the nursery with something running back and forth outside, just visible through the keyhole, scraping its fingernails along the wall as it goes, had me feeling pretty unsettled even reading it in broad daylight (I write horror for God’s sake — I should not be scared by this stuff!).
The only negative point I would raise is that Waters’ efforts to keep everything within Faraday’s Point of View mean that significant dramatic events are often related second hand or even third hand (e.g. David Graham telling Faraday what Betty told him about how Caroline died) and despite Waters’ excellent writing, these events seem to lose drama with every degree of separation from the reader’s viewpoint. The use of the pluperfect adds to this — hearing that someone had gone into a room and had heard something sinister is never as immediate or gripping as being there with the character as those events take place. And on a similar note there are a few occasions where Faraday is talking to another character and according to his account of the conversation just slips in everything that had happened up to that point (e.g. his fireside chat with Seeley), which at some points in the book would mean relating a good sixty thousands words of story-so-far, not something that could be done off-handedly (I think poor Betty at that courtroom inquest has pretty much the whole book to tell). But those are minor niggles.
Overall opinion — cracking ghost story, definitely one to recommend, and well deserved its place as a Booker Prize nominee.