Sarah Waters Spins A Haunting Tale Of Class Conflict

Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters set out to explore class consciousness — and the power of poltergeists — in her new novel, The Little Stranger. hide caption

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'The Little Stranger' cover

Critic Maud Newton calls The Little Stranger "deeply, deeply chilling." Read the entire review or an excerpt.

One of this season's best-reviewed new novels, The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a ghost story set at a crumbling Warwickshire manor house in postwar England.

Hundreds Hall, the novel's Gothic setting, is haunted — but perhaps not by what you'd expect. Its inhabitants are bedeviled not just by their sinking economic status but also by odd noises, along with peculiar behavior from the family dog.

Waters says she's not the sort of person who believes in ghosts in real life. But during her research for The Little Stranger, she became intrigued by theories about what causes poltergeists.

"Some kind of dark energy that could be produced when we're unhappy," she notes. "Or in conflict, or repressing something. Something that can split itself off from us — and start causing havoc."

In a review in Salon's Must Read column, critic Laura Miller cheered The Little Stranger for returning style, innovation and brilliance to a form often cheapened by horror. Rather than Grand Guignol gore, Waters delicately evokes suspense, chills and what an academic might call the Gothic sublime.

"She's really written one of the great modern ghost stories of our time," says Miller.

It's not all spooks and spirits; The Little Stranger is a novel that seethes with bitterly felt class resentment. Its narrator is a shabby country doctor, back in the day when aristocrats saw doctors as barely above servants. He is treating Hundreds Hall's young master, who has recently returned from the war. Dr. Faraday ascribes his patient's increasingly alarming outbursts to "nerve storms" — the era's equivalent to PTSD. But it soon seems something even darker haunts the young man, a malicious entity intent on ruining the entire family.

Waters' own family exemplifies profound class shifts in British society after World War II. Her grandmother served as a nursemaid at a great house; Waters has a Ph.D. in literary studies. In The Little Stranger, Waters intended to explore the postwar undermining of England's rigid class system.

Setting her novel at Hundreds Hall allowed her to introduce both Gothic elements and historical ones — such as the introduction of the National Health Service and the spread of council estates during the 1940s. But Waters says she did not set out to write a ghost story.

"I kind of had a vision of a country house, a fading gentry family living inside it, trying and failing to keep pace with a changing world," she muses. "And then I thought actually, so many middle-class people felt actively menaced by postwar changes. How about if I give them a real menace ... and make it a haunted house story?"

Up until now Waters' immersive, prodigiously researched historical novels — which include the Victorian-era Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet — have all featured lesbian heroines. And while the author is aware that the lack of lesbian characters in her new book may upset some fans, she says it was not a calculated decision.

"It wasn't a novel about sexuality for me at all," she says. "It was much more about class. And, of course, I could have squeezed in a minor lesbian character or something, but that would have felt very tokenistic and inorganic."

Excerpt: 'The Little Stranger'

The Little Stranger
By Sarah Waters
Hardcover, 464 pages
Riverhead Books
List price: $26.95

One

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fete: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or a ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aside for our use were the grooms' and the gardeners', in the stable block. My mother, however, still had friends among the servants, and when the tea was finished and people were given the run of the grounds, she took me quietly into the house by a side door, and we spent a little time with the cook and the kitchen girls. The visit impressed me terribly. The kitchen was a basement one, reached by a cool vaulted corridor with something of the feel of a castle dungeon. An extraordinary number of people seemed to be coming and going along it with hampers and trays. The girls had such a mountain of crockery to wash, my mother rolled up her sleeves to help them; and to my very great delight, as a reward for her labour I was allowed to take my pick of the jellies and 'shapes' that had come back uneaten from the fete. I was put to sit at a deal-topped table, and given a spoon from the family's own drawer — a heavy thing of dulled silver, its bowl almost bigger than my mouth.

But then came an even greater treat. High up on the wall of the vaulted passage was a junction-box of wires and bells, and when one of these bells was set ringing, calling the parlourmaid upstairs, she took me with her, so that I might peep past the green baize curtain that separated the front of the house from the back. I could stand and wait for her there, she said, if I was very good and quiet. I must only be sure to keep behind the curtain, for if the Colonel or the missus were to see me, there'd be a row.

I was an obedient child, as a rule. But the curtain opened onto the corner junction of two marble-floored passages, each one filled with marvellous things; and once she had disappeared softly in one direction, I took a few daring steps in the other. The thrill of it was astonishing. I don't mean the simple thrill of trespass, I mean the thrill of the house itself, which came to me from every surface — from the polish on the floor, the patina on wooden chairs and cabinets, the bevel of a looking-glass, the scroll of a frame. I was drawn to one of the dustless white walls, which had a decorative plaster border, a representation of acorns and leaves. I had never seen anything like it, outside of a church, and after a second of looking it over I did what strikes me now as a dreadful thing: I worked my fingers around one of the acorns and tried to prise it from its setting; and when that failed to release it, I got out my penknife and dug away with that. I didn't do it in a spirit of vandalism. I wasn't a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it — or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.

I'm afraid the acorn gave at last, though less cleanly than I'd been expecting, with a tug of fibre and a fall of white powder and grit; I remember that as disappointing. Possibly I'd imagined it to be made of marble.

But nobody came, nobody caught me. It was, as they say, the work of a moment. I put the acorn in my pocket, and slipped back behind the curtain. The parlourmaid returned a minute later and took me back downstairs; my mother and I said goodbye to the kitchen staff, and rejoined my father in the garden. I felt the hard plaster lump in my pocket, now, with a sort of sick excitement. I'd begun to be anxious that Colonel Ayres, a frightening man, would discover the damage and stop the fete. But the afternoon ran on without incident until the bluish drawing-in of dusk. My parents and I joined other Lidcote people for the long walk home, the bats flitting and wheeling with us along the lanes as if whirled on invisible strings.

My mother found the acorn, of course, eventually. I had been drawing it in and out of my pocket, and it had left a chalky trail on the grey flannel of my shorts. When she understood what the queer little thing in her hand was, she almost wept. She didn't smack me, or tell my father; she never had the heart for arguments. Instead she looked at me, with her tearful eyes, as if baffled and ashamed.

'You ought to know better, a clever lad like you,' I expect she said.

People were always saying things like that to me when I was young. My parents, my uncles, my schoolmasters-all the various adults who interested themselves in my career. The words used to drive me into secret rages, because on the one hand I wanted desperately to live up to my own reputation for cleverness, and on the other it seemed very unfair, that that cleverness, which I had never asked for, could be turned into something with which to cut me down.

***

The acorn was put on the fire. I found the blackened nub of it among the clinker, next day. That must have been the last grand year for Hundreds Hall, anyway. The following Empire Day fete was given by another family, in one of the neighbouring big houses; Hundreds had started its steady decline. Soon afterwards the Ayreses' daughter died, and Mrs Ayres and the Colonel began to live less publicly. I dimly remember the births of their next two children, Caroline and Roderick — but by then I was at Leamington College, and busy with bitter little battles of my own. My mother died when I was fifteen. She had had miscarriage after miscarriage, it turned out, all through my childhood, and the last one killed her. My father lived just long enough to see me graduate from medical school and return to Lidcote a qualified man. Colonel Ayres died a few years later — an aneurism, I think.

With his death, Hundreds Hall withdrew even further from the world. The gates of the park were kept almost permanently closed. The solid brown stone boundary wall, though not especially high, was high enough to seem forbidding. And for all that the house was such a grand one, there was no spot, on any of the lanes in that part of Warwickshire, from which it could be glimpsed. I sometimes thought of it, tucked away in there, as I passed the wall on my rounds — picturing it always as it had seemed to me that day in 1919, with its handsome brick faces, and its cool marble passages, each one filled with marvellous things.

Reprinted from THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Waters

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