The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

Little stranger cvr

Spoilers ahead

The novel’s title and publicity suggest a traditional ghost story of the kind you might get from say Susan Hill.  There are ghostly elements certainly, but while Waters aims for a Turn of the Screw type of ambiguity, this is not a traditional uncanny tale, generating an escalating tension.  If it is true that the ghost story is at its best as a short story or novella, she has gone out of her way to break that genre convention with her leisurely account of going-on in a crumbling grand house, Hundreds Hall, in the Warwickshire countryside, during 1947-8.  Left over from another time, its inhabitants are struggling in the new world being constructed by the Attlee government that seems to have no place for their kind.

The Ayres family have seen their Georgian home decline dramatically since the end of the First World War, its land and farms gradually sold off to pay debts, its decay accelerated during the Second World War when it was used to billet soldiers.  From a once extensive establishment with the family waited on by an army of servants, the three remaining Ayres – siblings Roderick and Caroline and their mother – now only have a daily help and a live-in maid, while Roderick works as hard as any labourer trying to keep the single remaining farm going, as it provides the only regular source of income.

It’s not enough, and despite every means of home economy the land is still being sold piecemeal to keep the place afloat.  The latest piece to go has been purchased by a local developer to build council housing within sight at the edge of Hundreds’ park, proof if it were needed of changing times.  The old wall that once kept Hundreds secure from interlopers is symbolically breached as the new houses encroach.   Unfortunately, even with these cash injections the old place isn’t viable as a going concern, and the Ayres are living on their dwindling capital.  Into this genteel poverty stumbles the novel’s narrator, Dr Faraday, who charts his growing relationship with the family as they struggle with their situation, one that suddenly gets worse when odd things start to happen that defy explanation.

Waters makes us feel sorry for the loss of the Ayres’ comfortable lifestyle, when the Colonel was alive and his lady could throw a lavish garden party at which she would hand out Empire medals to the local children, when the Ayres really meant something in the locality.  Their decline becomes all the more uncomfortable for the reader because of the length of the fall.  At the same time she makes it clear that while we may lament the loss of Hundred’s fine views, those views came at the expense of deprivation and inadequate housing for the many.  Waters certainly manages to capture a sense of nostalgia for a lost past of elegance, but she also shows the price paid by the majority in a rigidly stratified society.

So on one level this is a story of changing post-war attitudes, with democratisation and increasing opportunity bringing a gradual loss of deference as the old order’s privileges are threatened.  A family with new money recently arrived in the district is invited to a party at Hundreds, as Mrs Ayres tries to recreate the splendour of the house’s heyday.  It is an evening that begins with an excruciating gathering as the guests see the decay, physical and social, and ends in horror with a disfigured child, bitten by Caroline’s old and hitherto gentle dog.  The old order is humiliated in front of the new money.

Along with the idea of the breakdown of class barriers is that of increasing social mobility.  Faraday (whose first name, Rebecca-like, is never revealed) has risen from a working/lower middle-class background: his father had been a shopkeeper, his mother a nursery maid at Hundreds in the good old days.  As a doctor he occupies a liminal position (to emphasise which he has an uncomfortable meeting with his cousin, who is digging a ditch at the new development), in a similar way to the governess in The Turn of the Screw.  Even with his solid professional background he harbours a feeling of inferiority, and there is a sense that the county set would continue to think of him as the son of working people, not one of them despite his achievements.  He only makes contact with the Ayres because he is called out to see their maid, Betty, who thinks that there is something not quite right with the house and has taken to her bed.  Still, in this world in flux his handicap of birth counts for less than it would once have done, and the Ayres quickly come to rely on him.  He insinuates himself and becomes increasingly influential as the family falls apart with astonishing speed, eventually pressing Caroline to accept his offer of marriage.

Faraday’s link to Hundreds goes beyond his attachment to the inhabitants.  He had seen the house in all its glory when a little boy, and is horrified to discover how far it has decayed.  There is always a sense that his relationship with Caroline is as much about the house as it is about her, an accusation she finally levels at him: that marrying her would give him the house.  Even though Hundreds’ future is bleak, he attaches himself to it as a fixed point that will give him the prestige in society that was denied his parents, and which has hitherto been out of his own grasp, leaving him a ‘nobody’.

As the house deteriorates, one catastrophe after another befalling it, each of the three remaining Ayres comes to believe, like Betty, that there is something, some presence, in the house that is hostile to them.  It may be paranoia, but perhaps they are right, and there is a malignant spirit in the place.  A prime candidate is Susan, Mrs Ayres’ first child who died of diphtheria.  Why the long-dead Susan should suddenly start tormenting the family is not clear, but evidence that there is a ghost in the house which can manifest physically is provided when Mrs Ayres finds herself shut up in the nursery with someone or something running backwards and forwards outside the door – is it a ghost or an hallucination caused by the medication that Faraday is giving her?

Alternatively, perhaps it one of the living who is somehow creating the phenomena: war-damaged Roderick, having to take on Hundreds before he is ready, is full of rage (Caroline certainly thinks he might be involved, even when he has been sent to a home); Mrs Ayres is grieving for a lost past and for Susan; and Caroline is on the shelf in her twenties, considered too plain to be a good catch, and perhaps suffering from sexual frustration.  It is possible that for any of them, psychic turmoil may have become externalised.  The two new variables in the household are Betty and Faraday himself.  Is Betty the catalyst for the strange occurrences – or is it even that arch-rationalist Dr Faraday?

The ambiguity is expressed in the details.  Objects move around or disappear from where they are supposed to be.  Scorch marks appear in Roderick’s room, then there is a fire.  It could be a poltergeist at work, or just what happens in a big house that is falling apart.  Possibly the acts are being perpetrated, consciously or unconsciously, by someone in the house.  Betty talks about something ‘bad’ being present, but we cannot be sure whether she is right, or is setting up expectations that will cause later events to be misinterpreted.  We can’t know for most of it, that is, but there are incidents, like the childishly scrawled ‘S’s that appear on the walls in awkward places, which are not easily amenable to a natural explanation.

Faraday reports all the events, but cannot countenance a paranormal explanation for them, and his unremitting rationalism alienates Caroline.  As he is narrator it is difficult to gain an independent viewpoint on him, but the suspicion arises that he might not be quite all he seems on the surface.  It is true that things work to his advantage – Caroline loses her beloved dog, then Roderick is put away, Mrs Ayres dies, and he is left with Caroline, on her own and, he thinks, malleable to his will.  When she proves not to be, and resists his attempt to control her, he takes this as a sign of mental derangement and tries to put obstacles in her way when she tells him she is selling the house and emigrating.

The Little Stranger’s acknowledgements are illuminating in examining the paranormal elements of the novel.  As part of her preparation, Waters read a number of books on psychical research, including on poltergeists, and the raps heard about the place, movements of objects and bells ringing could be classified as poltergeist phenomena.  She also references Phantasms of the Living by Gurney, Myers and Podmore (though not Myers’ Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death), with Myers alluded to in discussing a possible mechanism for events: a portion of someone’s unconscious that has broken free of its moorings and is causing the manifestations.  Where Myers was positive about the subliminal self, Waters casts it in sinister terms.  As another GP, Dr Seeley, puts it to Faraday:

‘The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all.  Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners.  Let’s call it a – a germ.  And let’s say conditions prove right for that gem to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb.  What would this little stranger grow into?  A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde.  A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away…’ (p.380).  The id, in fact, and the energy created by it might power the poltergeist phenomena.

A poltergeist often has an adolescent female as its focus, which makes Betty a prime candidate.   Only at the end is it apparent that Faraday himself is the probable focus, and the cause of Caroline’s death while in a fugue state.  It is conceivable that Caroline is confronted by the figure that her mother heard running up and down the corridor on the top floor, or it is some manifestation of Faraday’s unconscious that has materialised rather than his physical presence; but he is not far away, sleeping in his car, and he has access to the Hall.  Caroline says ‘You’ before she dies, according to Betty, suggesting that she recognised whatever it was she confronted, whether solid or spectral.  At the same time Faraday dreams, in an echo of Rebecca’s opening, that he is travelling to the hall.  Perhaps he was, in one form or another, and he is responsible for Caroline’s fall.  As is characteristic of the novel there is no direct evidence for any one explanation.

In the end, all rivals disposed of in one way or another, Faraday is left in possession of Hundreds Hall, but it is not an unproblematic possession.  He is no better than a squatter, his continuing presence only possible while the house remains unsold – or more likely undemolished.  The irony is that by then it is not the council housing that is the blot on the landscape, but the empty Hall, to the extent that the council tenants ask for a fence to be erected to screen the view.  The conclusion has Faraday standing in the house musing that if there is a ghost it doesn’t show itself to him, before saying that sometimes he will think there is something, before realising that all he can see is his own distorted face staring back from a cracked window-pane.  By now we think we have a fairly firm idea who the ‘little stranger’ is.  It is not Susan, but someone very much alive, showing that it is not only the dead that can haunt a place, the living can as well.  But there are no firm answers to the conundrum, and the answer could lie elsewhere.

This lack of a resolution may be frustrating to some.  In its absence the reader has to go with the atmosphere of the novel because the plot is so slow-burning it would be easy to lose patience with it, particularly in the first hundred pages.  It is worth persevering because Waters evokes a sense of time and place wonderfully, and gradually the pace increases as we are drawn into the mystery and try to fathom what is really going on.  Those strange post-war days, with an old world being replaced with a new one, symbolised by the coming of the National Health Service that Dr Faraday frets will end his career, come alive in a wealth of details that feel spot-on.  It may have been the ending of a world, but on this evidence we should not mourn its passing.

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