I’ll get to saying something serious in a minute, but in the interest of honesty, you should know that my immediate reaction upon finishing The Little Stranger was to throw my head back and proclaim, “Ugggghhhhh, this is siiiiickeningly gooooood omg I caaaaaan’t.”
My second reaction was to order two more Sarah Waters books. It was one of the only books I’ve read this year that I closed and instantly knew was a favorite. It has subtlety, gothicism, and a strain of feminism, all bound up with some fantastic writing.
As a child, Dr. Faraday was taken by his mother into Hundreds Hall to see the house, but only from the doorway dividing the back and front of the house. His mother was a servant, and it would not have been proper for her son to be above-stairs. He stands entranced by the wealth and beauty of the house while he waits for his mother to return.
Nearly thirty years later, post WWII, he returns to Hundreds Hall as a doctor, filling in for a colleague who is on an emergency case. Colonel Ayres, the squire of the manor, is long dead, but the middle-aged Mrs. Ayres still lives there with her two adult children, Roderick and Caroline. Faraday comes to treat the Ayres’ young maid, who is one of only two servants remaining in the once-bustling home, but returns to perform a series of experimental treatments on Roderick, who injured his leg in the war. Roderick, it seems, also has some anxiety issues from his combat experiences, which are only exacerbated by his family’s dwindling wealth and the house that is falling down around them.
Waters’ plot has a deliciously slow build. At first, there are only hints that something may be wrong, hints so slight they might be dismissed out of hand if they didn’t continue to accrue so relentlessly. Then one day, Gyp, the gentle family dog, snaps and attacks a young child. Gyp is put down as a result, but the housemaid insists it wasn’t his fault: “There’s a bad thing in this house… and he makes wicked things happen!’ The maid is fourteen years old and flighty; Dr. Faraday tells her she’s tired and silly and considers the matter closed.
But creepy things keep happening. Strange burn marks appear in the walls. A fire breaks out mysteriously. There’s a tapping in the walls. Again, they’re all things that could be explained by natural causes, but cumulatively, they grate on the family’s already worn-thin nerves. Roderick has panic attacks and refuses to sleep, believing he must watch for the house’s mischievous spirit so that he can keep it from harming his mother or sister. Mrs. Ayres starts to believe her first child, who died at age six before Caroline and Roderick were born, is trying to contact her. And Caroline tries to convince Dr. Faraday that the house is no good for any of them, but most frequently meets with a dismissive explanation and a condescending, “You’re tired.”
Dr. Faraday does not intend to be condescending, and as his first-person narration shows, he is certainly not aware that he is being so. It would not occur to him that he could be so: despite his increasing intimacy with the family, he is still reminded periodically that he is not of their class. He learns, to his surprise, that he is rumored to be courting Caroline, and though no one else seems to find it strange, he still thinks of himself as the boy who would not be allowed in the house thirty years ago. Waters uses his relationship with Caroline to show the reader his sexism and insecurity. She does this so subtly that I found myself having to pull back from the book, to consider events from my own perspective, because I was so enveloped in the voice of the novel.
It’s smart and creepy as hell. And the writing itself is just so perfect: clean but warm and elegant, with a slight formality befitting the period. It has the atmosphere of Rebecca meets ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (it’s no coincidence one of the characters is a highly nervous person named Roderick), and the pacing and eeriness of the film The Others. Spooky and sad as it all was, I was smiling as I closed the book. All this, and she has a trilogy of Victorian period novels? I’ve definitely just found a new favorite.