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Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Haunted house books aren't my usual cup of tea, but this one was assigned for book club. I am not a big reader of horror at all, although I've read the classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Shining.) In fact, in college I wrote my senior paper on horror movies, thinking that if I understood why they scared me, they wouldn't scare me so much (didn't work at all.) My argument was that really effective scary movies aren't about ghosts and goblins at all. Instead, they take really ordinary things and make them malevolent. When you doubt what the very definition of something is, such as a car (Christine for example), it makes you start to doubt the definition of everything. I did my paper on The Shining (a hotel), Poltergeist (a house), Night of the Living Dead (the people around us), and Halloween (the boy down the street).

The Little Stranger not only falls perfectly within my thesis, it flat-out states it! "It was all the more sickening, somehow, for the glass being such an ordinary sort of object. If--I don't know, but if some beast had suddenly appeared in the room, some spook or apparition, I think I would have borne the shock of it better. But this--it was hateful, it was wrong. It made one feel as though everything around one, the ordinary stuff of one's ordinary life, might at any moment start up like this and--overwhelm one.." p. 166. And then poor Rod sits in his room, on high alert, looking from one thing to another, not knowing what might become a weapon next, as anything might. Nothing is safe.

But, first to explain the story. In post-WWII England, Dr. Faraday is making his way in the world, having taken over a practice and recently paid off his debts for the practice and school, and one day he is called out to the estate in the area, Hundreds Hall. He is familiar with the manor house as his mother had worked there before he was born, and had once taken him there as a child for a party for the town. But the estate has fallen on hard times. With no money to maintain it (this family did not have the foresight to marry into American wealth a generation earlier, a la Downton Abbey), the widow, Mrs. Ayres, and her adult children Caroline and Roderick (who had been badly injured in the war in a plane crash) just barely got by with half the house closed up. Dr. Faraday treats their one servant, Betty, a young teenager from the nearby countryside, and becomes somewhat friends with the Ayreses. He begins to treat Roderick's legs and in doing so, comes by the house weekly. Over time he is trusted and let in on Roderick's belief that something evil has "infected" him and his room, which eventually leads to a horrible fire. Roderick is committed to a mental hospital, and hopes the evilness is now gone, having run him off and destroyed his mind, but something is still in the house, waiting, watching, teasing, torturing. As Dr. Faraday and Caroline tentatively start a courtship, Hundreds Hall seems to become malevolent, almost like a thinking, seeing creature, and as Caroline, an exceedingly practical girl, becomes increasingly convinced it is haunted, Dr. Faraday, the man of science, clings to rational explanations.

Ms. Waters never gives us a final explanation and there are a couple of possible arguments you could make to explain things, certainly including a haunting. There are a lot of topics to discuss, the most obvious being class distinctions. While Dr. Faraday is a doctor, his mother was a maid and his father was a grocer and they went into a lot of debt to send him to school. He doesn't have much money (although it's still probably more than the Ayreses have) but it doesn't matter if he did, for money alone would never elevate him to same class as the Ayreses, as is demonstrated by a party early on given for nearby society interlopers, the Baker-Hydes. New money, they have bought a nearby estate like Hundreds Hall, and while the Ayreses do invite them over and throw a little shindig for them (Mrs. Ayres hopes Caroline and Mrs. Baker-Hyde's brother might hit it off), it's clear the Ayreses still feel quite strongly that they are superior to the newly minted aristocrats. If it weren't for the disrepair and neglect the estate has fallen into, and the lack of funds, Dr. Faraday would never have a shot with Caroline. Unlike America, England is still very much a classed society and you can't just educate or earn your way into the upper class.

This book was really spooky. I mostly had to read it during the day. Which was hard, because I found the book impossible to put down. Even writing this review is spooking me a little bit. Every sound my house makes, makes me jump (and I am thankful for the cat, on whom we can blame most mysterious noises.) The tension and atmosphere are masterfully drawn. There is nothing gruesome in the book, so if squeamishness is a reason you've not read horror books in the past, that's no excuse now. The crumbling state of Hundreds Hall with its leaks and mold and grime, heighten the anxiety and mood of the book. Hundreds Hall is nearly a character itself, which is appropriate for a house that might be sentient, might be malevolent.

I loved this book. I particularly love when a book in a genre I don't normally read, captivates me. Excellent books easily defy their genre boundaries and The Little Stranger definitely is one of those. I likely will have a hard time passing this book along, as haunted house books aren't a big draw for many of my friends, but I will foist this book on someone who will end up quite happy in the end for the experience, as was I.

1 comment:

Ann @ Blogging Profits Unleashed said...

This book was really great! I got completely addicted to this novel and finished it in less than a week. I love ghost stories and this was a luscious one. The Little Stranger is a hard book to peg down.