“The Little Stranger” (2009)

My mother, of all people, recommended I read this, and went so far as to buy me a copy. If you don’t know my mother, she’s a wonderful, strong, smart person who goes completely nuts at the merest mention of scary things. By her own reckoning, it’s been some forty years since she slept without tucking her hands under the covers, thanks to that delicious scene from The Haunting.

(For everybody except my mom: I couldn’t get it to queue up properly, for some reason, but in the video below, the scene in question is at 1:00. For my mom: thanks for life and clothing and stuff. PS: don’t watch this.)

The Little Stranger does, in fact, invite comparison to Shirley Jackson’s gothic ghost story. Both are about houses (SHIT I AM SCARED ALREADY). Both are about, uh, people. In said houses. And ghosts, also in houses.

The similarity, of course, is that both books are self-consciously situated in the gothic genre. Both emphasize place–in this case, architectural place–as an ultimate source of fear. Which is awesome. These houses, so central in both stories, are the repositories of years, decades, centuries’ worth of human emotions; they become living things themselves, which, if you really stop to think about it, can freak your shit right the hell out.

But houses are just houses without people to give them meaning and invest them with a kind of life, psychic or spiritual or otherwise. The Little Stranger is about a house in post-WWII Warwickshire and the people who live in it: the last generation and a half (mother, daughter and son) of an old noble family, the Ayres. It’s also about a country doctor, one Dr. Faraday, who finds himself sent out to the Ayres’ crumbling old manor house, Hundreds Hall, when his partner, Dr. Graham, is unable to call in himself.

[Spoilers ahoy] Faraday gets increasingly caught up in the day-to-day affairs of the house, which is barely managing to stay afloat financially. Mrs. Ayres, the old-by-the-standards-of-the-time-but-by-today’s-standards-a-total-cougar (hyphens!), is naturally unable to run the place herself. So the all the responsibilities of keeping up the house, of running the farm and balancing the accounts and presumably wearing the tweed, falls to her twenty-something son, Roderick, a wounded vet with a “nervous condition” brought about by a plane crash in the war. Meanwhile, the apparently unattractive, tall, awkward daughter, Caroline, seems to be thoroughly enjoying her decline into spinsterhood, flouncing about in mismatched clothes and not giving a damn what the village folk think of her saucy mannerisms and her jaunty biffymuffins and those bloody poodlepatatattishes, wot.

Romance eventually develops, kind of, between Faraday and Caroline (I say, wot), at a pace outstripped by only literally every other physical object in the entire universe. Faraday is, by his own admission, a bit tittlewitted with the ladies (I paraphrase), and the awkwardness that passes for courtship is at times difficult to read. In fact, the bulk of the novel is spent describing the interpersonal dramas between the doctor and the members of the family, who are essentially living the Bear Grylls lifestyle in their giant dilapidated manor. By the end you feel almost as if you could navigate the fictional house pretty easily. You also feel like that’s really not something you’d want to do.

The masterful thing about Waters’ writing is how the supernatural slips in almost under the radar. Whatever ghostly thing is going on, it asserts itself very gradually, always accompanied by a slew of plausible alternative explanations. And refreshingly, instead of the eventual acceptance of the supernatural that characterizes a lot of horror–nobody believes at first, but then a few folks die, and the survivors go find a book/professor/wise woman/hobo/Gypsy (or other stereotype) to interpret it all for them, and suddenly everybody’s down with the ghost shit–Waters has her characters increasingly ostracized by the others when they admit there may be something ghostly going on. Even at the end, when only one of the four main characters remains more or less unchanged by their experiences at the house, that person resists the idea that the things that went down were anything other than freak accidents or insanity.

What happens, you ask? Well, a summary here would do more harm than good, I think. The narrative is, as I’ve said, mostly concerned with the relationships between the main characters. The supernatural events are few and far between, and they serve, at least at first, more to underscore the existing problems at the house–the struggles of the former elite who are outdated in modern English society, the practical concerns of farming and plumbing and wiring and whatnot–than to frighten in the way they would in a true horror story.

[I think I saw a spoiler up ahead] For instance, the Ayres decide at one point to throw a party, inviting some of their gentry friends and spending quite a bit of time getting the old house ready for guests. On the night of the party, one group of friends brings along their young daughter, who annoys the other guests before going over to annoy Caroline’s dog Gyp. Gyp is a placid old dog who’s the model of patience; and, lo and behold, he goes and bites the girl quite badly, making a mess of her face and necessitating a late-night kitchen-table operation by the good Dr. Faraday, who thankfully was on hand. At the same time all of this is happening, we later learn, Roderick, late for the party, is in his room, where objects are mysteriously disappearing only to reappear by falling from the ceiling, and a mirror walks across a shelf and then hurls itself at his face. When he tells Dr. Faraday this, of course, the man of science dismisses it all as delusion. And later, when Rod’s bedroom catches fire mysteriously and the poor guy explains that it was the house trying to get him, the good doctor finally has Rod committed.

This science vs. the supernatural attitude characterizes virtually every occurrence of the latter in the novel. Faraday is the ultra-modernist, the rationalist, positivist debunker of all things supernatural. He becomes, by the novel’s end, something of a witch-hunter: already having committed Rod, he is about to do the same to Mrs. Ayres, who has had her own supernatural experiences, before–well, he’s prevented by unforeseen events. 

The only pro-supernatural arguments come from the Ayres themselves, and from Dr. Seely, a friendly rival of Faraday’s, who is surprisingly open to the idea of psychic phenomena. A telling moment comes when Caroline tries to show Faraday some books she’s discovered in the family library dealing with poltergeists. Faraday responds predictably, dismissing the whole thing as superstition and psychosis. Science to the rescue!

Except science doesn’t work, in the end. It all ends on a tremendously bleak note, which is appropriate for a story about the decay of an old social system and its slow replacement with another. Class struggle is a central theme here–the Ayres would have a ton to discuss with Faulkner’s Comptons–and in a way the supernatural occurrences simply accelerate what is already occurring: the decline of a noble house.

The Little Stranger isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of truly frightful, suspenseful, horrific ghost stories, you might want to look elsewhere. But Waters’ take on the supernatural is compelling in its own way. It’s a slow, heavy read, but I stayed up until the wee hours finishing it. The atmosphere is brilliant, and as bleak as it is, I kind of liked the world she portrayed. 90/100.