Newest Review: ... previous Lord Ayres, though time has obviously been very cruel. Dr Faraday is amazed to see how badly the house has suffered with the ra... more
The Little Stranger - I've got chills, they're multiplying
The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
Member Name: PaigeTurner
The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
Advantages: A great ghost story built on tension and suspense
Disadvantages: Could not warm to all the characters
I purchased The Little Stranger on the basis of its author, Sarah Walters. I was on my lunch break at work and being in a rush scanned the book shop shelves and her name jumped out at me. I have read all her previous books and thoroughly enjoyed them despite an occasional wince at their explicitness and so thought with time ticking this was a good book to choose.
I was a little surprised on getting home that evening and reading the blurb on the back of the book what a departure in style The Little Stranger was to Walter's previous work. Perhaps it was not such a safe bet of a purchase after all, especially as I could sense the content was going to spook the life out of me.
The Little Stranger is to all intends and purposes a ghost story. There are no ghostly apparitions and things going bump in the night a la Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is far more about tension and suspense and fear of the unknown. Regardless, I was tempted to sleep with the bedroom light on a few times because as I say I am rubbish at anything to do with ghosts. It gives me a chill even thinking about it. For your average reader, this book is not likely to scare you to this extent, but boy will it get you thinking, and wondering and perhaps slightly freaking out.
Walter's first books were set in the Victorian period and pivot around the central theme of lesbian romance. The narratives are voiced by strong, female protagonists. The Nightwatch is a departure from these three novels as it is instead set during World War Two but it still keeps the strong female voice.
What is immediately striking about The Little Stranger is it is narrated by a man. I have done a little research and it appears it is common for traditional ghost stories to be narrated by a scholarly bachelor man and Dr Faraday is just that. I guess it gives the somewhat far-fetched plot more credence coming from such a character - even though it is a bit sexist for this day and age.
The Little Stranger is set in the 1940s but I didn't get that sense on reading the book. Of course the historical detail was there and I was quite taken aback at how Dr Faraday drinks and drives without a thought but the book instead created a picture of a Gothic era where time seemed of little importance. I think this was because the house itself, Hundreds Hall is very much frozen in time.
The book opens ten years earlier when Dr Faraday was a boy and he attended the Empire Day Fête held in the grounds of Hundreds Hall, a grand manor house owned by the Ayres. His mother used to be a servant at the hall and so is able to sneak him in the back way to take at look inside. He is immediately enamoured by the house and goes as far as to steal a bit of decorative plaster border. He snaps off a plaster acorn and puts it in his pocket.
A decade later he is called out to Hundreds Hall to tend to a servant. The house is not usually on his round but his superior, Dr Graham, is busy elsewhere. The Ayres family still live there but the house is falling into ruin around them. They are struggling to keep up with the advances in modern living and room after room is having to be shut up and abandoned.
Suspicion that all is not well at the house at a deeper level than purely cosmetic is first alluded to by the servant, Betty, who Dr Faraday realises is not ill, but faking illness in a bid to be sent home, away from the house which gives her the creeps.
Dr Faraday is a man of science and he does not accept Betty's view that the house is haunted but he is forced to accept that something untoward is going on at the house as more and more bizarre occurrences happen.
As the book progresses it also becomes clear that all is not completely well with Dr Faraday. From the moment he stole that plaster acorn he started to develop quite an unhealthy obsession with the building. He keeps a little collection of mementoes which he associates with the house, some objects he has stolen from the Ayres' home, as though very steadily he is working towards possessing Hundreds Hall in its entirety.
His relationship with Miss Ayres is the most chilling aspect of this ambition. There is a sense in moving closer to her, he is moving closer to the hall, and when the relationship breaks down he is as much upset at losing the prospect of owning the building through marriage, as he is of losing her.
His narrative style is quite withdrawn, emotionless and dare I say boring, but there is far more going on below the surface of this man, which makes him the more dangerous, as his thoughts and actions go undetected by those around him.
On the sly he is a thrill seeker. This is made evident in the beginning when he steals that acorn. Throughout the day he enjoys the thrill of the possibility he could be caught and is disappointed when he isn't.
To me The Little Stranger is the most chilling of ghost stories because it is not about what you see with your eyes but what you conjure up in your mind. There is a chilling suspense throughout the whole book and this is aided by Walter's choice of a dispassionate, matter of fact narrator. Like the narrator, we are forced to step back from the action and analyse it with a critical, rational eye. The fact that still there are some aspects of the tale which cannot be reasoned away, makes us believe, just like Dr Faraday, that the only option can be that the house is haunted, even if this is against our better judgement.
All the characters in the novel are well constructed. I have always been taken by the eccentricity of the aristocracy and constantly you see once grand establishments fall into decay because the aristocratic families have been unable to afford the upkeep.
Into this scenario, Walters put characters which are believable because they are recognisable. Ruth Ayres is very well painted, from her appearance and dress to her hoity toity manner. Roderick, similarly is both the stereotypical former soldier returned from active duty, battle scarred both physically and mentally, yet is very real as an individual. His mannerisms and speech are very immediate to the reader.
Mrs Ayres is more of a conundrum for me. She appears to have been sidelined in her own house by her children and I found it difficult to grasp whether she was, like her daughter, the unmoveable, stoic older states person, or a warm motherly figure. The text seemed to sway between the two.
I would say I didn't warm to any of these characters. Usually this would mean the end of my enjoyment of a book. I find if you don't care about the characters, then you don't care what happens to them.
There is one character that I did care for, however, which saved the novel for me and that was Hundreds Hall. It is Hundreds Hall, the big, friendly crumbling building, which is the victim of the hauntings or peculiar goings-on. It is Hundreds Hall which Dr Faraday has his obsessive sights on and I was most afraid for Hundreds Hall's fate when Miss Ayres planned to sell it off. The thought of the building being demolished was unbearable. The hall is vandalised, maimed and set alight throughout the book and is the greatest victim.
The first most likely explanation for the strange goings on in the house is that is it haunted by Mrs Ayres' first daughter who died as a child. But there is something too brutal about the events which happen which does not seem to fit with a child ghost making her presence known to her family.
A more chilling theory is Dr Faraday himself is something to do with what is going on. The other characters recognise a change in atmosphere and energy in the house, which seems to build following Dr Faraday's entry into their lives. Admittedly, Betty talks of ghostly goings-on occurring before the doctor enters the house but it is like he is an accelerant.
He sees the family taken off one by one as though making room for him to take over. The last few paragraphs of the story, which I will not reveal, compound this idea that Dr Faraday has something to do with it. Not in a crass way such as he is going around killing people or making spooky noises in the night to frighten people in their beds, but his presence has unsettled the equilibrium of the hall in some way.
No definitive answer is given of what was causing all these chilling events and many people on the outside try and rationalise it off as a series of unfortunate events. There are of course others who are fascinated at the possibility the house is haunted. The reader is also invited to take one of these two opposing sides.
I like the fact it is left open because regardless of which way you were tending to sway throughout, your point of view cannot be defeated. It is the open, inconclusive ending which makes this an effective ghost story. I found The Little Stranger a thoroughly enjoyable read, even if it did spook me at times.
Summary: A thriller of a ghost story based around a crumbling old manor house