THERE are only a handful of characters in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, and none are more impressive, oppressive and depressing than Hundreds Hall, the decaying manor house at the story’s heart. The sprawling estates of the English countryside have long provided the backdrop for works in all fictional genres, but once the houses slip into disrepair and grandeur fades into neglect, ghosts tend to move in and imbue the buildings with lives of their own.
Hundreds Hall is perfect for haunting. Chills whip down its long corridors and a disused, antiquated intercom links its countless vacant rooms, including an abandoned nursery on the top floor where a child once died. Moreover its remaining tenants – three representatives of the once wealthy Ayres family – have fallen on hard times. The patriarch is dead and his son, Roderick, is damaged in mind and body from the war. The unmarried daughter, Caroline, is a frump, and her mother’s life (like the estate’s clocks) stopped with the loss of her infant first born.
Waters also assembles other key factors for a ghost story: credulous, paranoid servants as well as a narrator of dubious reliability to guide us through. Henry James might have turned this screw before, but Waters applies the ratchet anew.
On the surface this is a traditional supernatural yarn, but it is equally effective as an examination of a peculiar British obsession with class. The narrator is Dr Faraday, a GP in a small village practice in Warwickshire during the uneasy post-war period. Although rationing still recalls the hardships of world conflict, there are also grand social changes afoot. The government is ready to launch a national health service, while developers eye underused land (of which Hundreds has plentiful acres) for modern housing estates.
The Ayres are regarded partly with envy and partly with pity, but always with curiosity and always from afar. Faraday, the son of a former housemaid, is chief among the fascinated voyeurs and when he is called to the house to attend an ailing servant, he is more excited by the prospect of getting behind the Ayres’ veneer of superior isolation than of restoring health to a sick woman. Although the pragmatic GP quickly dismisses reports of “something queer” in the house, Faraday soon begins cooking up excuses for return visits. As readers, we can only encourage him: Waters is devilishly skilled in raising our own inquisitiveness alongside Faraday’s.
The story picks up after an ill-fated cocktail party held in a room splendidly described as possessing an “essential loveliness … like the handsome bones behind a ravaged face”. Against their instincts, the Ayres invite their progressive neighbours (migrants from the other world of London, no less) to share some idle chit chat, but the house seems to rebel against the intruders. The Ayres’ docile, plodding Labrador unexpectedly savages a young girl who has accompanied her parents – and the horror is magnified by its setting: “The blood was made vivid and ghastly by the brilliant chandelier” we hear.
The Ayres and the rest of the world do not mix well, and Faraday, our go between, is called upon to destroy the mutt. In so doing he is irrevocably tied to the house, the Ayres, and their speedy descent into bedevilment. With the minimum of external intervention, the family begins to devour itself.
The Little Stranger, Waters’ fifth novel, was first released last spring and picked up a Booker Prize nomination en route to the bestseller lists. Predictably, it has since been optioned for a film and although whatever is haunting the house is never fully seen, there are numerous vivid set pieces that would translate dramatically to the screen.
It will also be intriguing to see any film’s casting, particularly of Caroline, who is the most developed character. Tall, cumbersome and almost wilfully unattractive, she is seemingly keen to clamber aboard the shelf despite the clumsy attentions of Faraday. Hollywood does not abound with obvious choices to play such a woman, but her role is key.
I was not quite so terrified by The Little Stranger as some critics claim to have been. But thankfully there’s much more to it than just spooks.
3. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Howard Swains