Book Review: Ron Charles on 'The Little Stranger' by Sarah Waters

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009


By Sarah Waters

Riverhead. 466 pp. $26.95

Sarah Waters ain't afraid of no ghost. Her new novel, a deliciously creepy tale called "The Little Stranger," is haunted by the spirits of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe. Waters is just one turn of the screw away from "The Fall of the House of Usher." Here, once again, a malevolent force moves through a crumbling mansion in which live the final two siblings of a faded great family. And yes, Waters's unbalanced young man is named Roderick, too. This is one of those eerily familiar stories in which a character lit only by candlelight insists, "There's nothing bad here, nothing spooky," and you just know they should all get the hell out of that house. But even though Waters is sewing together the necrotic parts of long-dead literary forms on a dark and stormy night, she keeps the lightning flashing in every gloomy chapter, and you can't help but gasp, "It's alive!"

What saves "The Little Stranger" from sinking into a fetid swamp of cliche is the author's restraint, her ability, like James's, to excite our imagination through subtle suggestion alone. The supernatural creaks and groans that reverberate through this tale are accompanied by malignant strains of class envy and sexual repression that infect every perfectly reasonable explanation we hear. The result is a ghost story as intelligent as it is stylish.

I'm not giving anything away by reminding you to keep your eyes on the narrator. Dr. Faraday is a priggish middle-aged bachelor who describes these peculiar events with a pose of scientific rationalism and "a sense of desperate regret -- almost with guilt." He has a vivid memory of visiting the grand Hundreds Hall as a child in 1919, and so when he's called back to the rural Warwickshire estate almost 30 years later to treat one of the servants, he's shocked by its decrepitude. "The house was collapsing," he notes with dismay, "like a pyramid of cards." The once large staff has been reduced to just one teenage girl, who's faking a stomachache in hopes of being fired from this creepy place.

Waters conjures up everything in "The Little Stranger" elegantly, but what's most fascinating is her portrayal of Faraday. The son of poor laborers, he develops a complicated response to Hundreds Hall and the Ayreses, the withering family of aristocrats riding it into the grave. He's flattered to be called into their home and consulted as an expert, but he also feels the embarrassment of his humble origins, the "absurd sense of gaucheness, and falseness." Even standing in their parlor, enjoying their liquor, flirting with the daughter, he suddenly realizes, "I looked more than ever like a balding grocer."

The response to "The Little Stranger" will be a little different in this country than in England, where Waters lives. Because Americans persist in pretending we have no class system, we've never developed the Brits' vocabulary of duty, expectation, resentment and adoration that's so central to the themes of this macabre novel. (In one particularly dire moment, Dr. Faraday says, "It's as if -- well, as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family," and a friend replies, "It's called a Labour Government.") Also, English readers may remember seeing impressive estates like Hundreds Hall broken up, turned into museums or even bulldozed into suburbia.

For Faraday such a transformation would be an unthinkable tragedy, and the Ayreses act as though they can forestall the inevitable. "They seem to pride themselves on living like the Bront√ęs out there," a man in town observes. They carry on "gaily at gentry life," even while furtively reusing postage stamps. The son, Roderick, has returned from the war with some nasty burns and a bad limp, but feels the "awful pressure" of rebuilding the estate without nearly enough money. Hundreds Hall is an almost hermetically sealed world of lost gentility . . . if only the rot could be arrested. Dozens of rooms are permanently closed off, "dead as paralysed limbs." Over the stable door is a broken clock set to 8:40 -- a wry reference to Dickens's Miss Havisham. "I had slipped into some other, odder, rather rarer realm," Faraday notes with a mixture of rapture and alarm.

Adoring the house and eager to ingratiate himself with its tattered owners, Faraday sublimates his envy into deep concern for their welfare, a psychological state that calls to mind Patricia Highsmith's clever psychopath, Tom Ripley. Soon, horrible mishaps start taking place, emergencies that make the Ayreses grateful that the talented Dr. Faraday is so close at hand. But don't get the impression that psychology alone can explain what's happening in this doomed house. Confronted with these weird events, Freud himself would have to admit that sometimes a demon-possessed cigar is just a demon-possessed cigar. Hundreds Hall is full of inexplicable sounds, fluttering shadows, burn marks on the walls, a beloved pet suddenly turned vicious and -- most grotesque of all -- "ordinary things . . . come to crafty, malevolent life."

What are we dealing with here? Hysteria? Evil spirits? A jealous doctor? Waters teases us with clues that send us running off in every direction: psychological, paranormal and socioeconomic. But the story's sustained ambiguity is what keeps our attention, and her perfectly calibrated tone casts an unnerving spell over these pages. As Dr. Faraday correctly notes, "In any other setting, such a story would have struck me as farcical."

A century ago, Henry James said he'd been inspired to write "The Turn of the Screw" by the disappointment among his literary friends that "the good, the really effective and heart-shaking ghost-stories . . . appeared all to have been told, and neither new crop nor new type in any quarter awaited us." He needn't have feared that. We've enjoyed 100 years of fantastic horror writing in myriad crops and types. But here Waters has made the old bones dance again.

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