by Malena Lott
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Stephen King recommended The Little Stranger in his best of 2009 list for Entertainment Weekly. The next day I read a tweet by thriller author MJ Rose who was reading it and loving it. (See how powerful frequency and word-of-mouth is?) Within thirty seconds I had purchased the hardback in Kindle format for my iPhone, only the second purchase I’ve made on my iPhone. I figured a ghost story might be just the thing I needed for holiday distraction. I was right.
What Waters has pulled off is a ghost story that may or may not be a ghost story – depending on whether or not you believe in ghosts. I happen to, full disclosure, so everything that happens in Hundreds Hall, the mansion which is the main character in the novel, feels haunted to me from the get go. That being said, the “ghost” part of the story is very minor, and the major aspects of the story are the history and functioning (and falling apart) of the house itself and the Ayres family who reside there. Mrs. Ayres and her two living children, a “hearty spinster” Caroline, her younger brother Roderick, who suffered burns and has a bum leg from the war.
The story is really about a man, our protagonist Dr. Faraday, a forty-ish bachelor whose parents gave up everything to see that he could become a doctor, and his relationship with the Ayres and Hundreds Hall. One quickly believes he loves the mansion, even in its tired state, more than he loves Caroline. His visits to the mansion begin as doctor-patient only and grow into a friendship. Throughout the story, the various members of the family confide in Dr. Faraday to determine what exactly is happening in Hundreds Hall – the burn marks on the walls and the bruises and marks appearing on the family members and later a bigger fire and suicide. As a medical doctor, Faraday explains it all away – clumsiness, candles too close to walls, and ultimately mental illness.
Does isolation and losing one’s standing in society – having to sell off parcel after parcel of your land, make you go crazy? In that way, can a house turn against you? Ruin your life? Or it something more – one’s own energy and anxiety causing things to physically happen within the house? Or could it be the ghost of little Susan, the first child of Mrs. Ayres, who the mother admits she was completely in love with and loved more deeply than her other two? Does the child miss her mother, want her on the other side?
Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, but acknowledge that places have chi – energy – then it’s easy to see how locking away whole sections of a mansion and letting it get to a dilapidated state because you can’t afford the upkeep or repairs, could change the home’s positive energy negative and stagnant.
Waters is a gifted writer for sure – and just scanning the acknowledgments in the back of the book on all the research she did to get the setting, time period, medicine and architecture right truly is astounding. While I would’ve preferred more haunted and less house, it’s an impressive book and certainly stands out as a literary exploration of the psyche and the supernatural.