STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And let's move now from stories of newspapers that are a ghost of what they were to a story about ghosts - a well-reviewed novel, The Little Stranger, which takes place at a crumbling English Manor House. There are odd noises and peculiar behavior from the family dog. Some characters think Hundreds Hall is haunted. And part of what makes the novel so powerful, says NPR's Neda Ulaby, is the idea of what may haunt that house.
NEDA ULABY: The Little Stranger's narrator is a shabby country doctor who's caring for the young master of Hundreds Hall. His patient, Roderick Ayers, came back from the war traumatized and disfigured. He may be losing his mind. He says he sees little black smudges weirdly materialize on his wall. The doctor does not believe him until one night.
Unidentified Man: I looked at the wall behind Rod's bed and saw one there, or thought I did. I couldn't be sure. The shadows played such tricks. But my gaze went darting about from one surface to another until it seemed to me that the room might be teaming with those mysterious smudges. And suddenly, the thought of leaving Rod among them for another night, another hour was too much.
ULABY: Underneath the doctor's solicitous attention seethes bitter class resentment, key to this ghost story's psychology. Back then, aristocrats saw doctors as barely more than servants. Author Sarah Waters is not the sort to believe in ghosts, but she became fascinated by the idea of what could cause poltergeists.
Ms. SARAH WATERS (Author): We might have something inside us, I suppose, that can escape, some sort of dark energy that can be produced when we're unhappy or are in conflict or we are oppressing something, something that can split itself off from us and start causing havoc.
Ms. LAURA MILLER (Critic, Salon's Must Read Column): She's really written one of the great modern ghost stories of our time.
ULABY: Laura Miller reviewed The Little Stranger for Salon. She says Sarah Waters slowly draws us in to a drab British backwater in the 1940s: the doctor, his practice, what he eats, what he wears
Ms. MILLER: You feel like you can see it. You feel like you can smell it. And it's very, very, very ordinary and mundane. And then the creepy things start to happen, and there's so much creepier because they're just this small, little exceptions in this perfectly built up, everyday life.
ULABY: Miller says Sarah Waters has a reputation for prodigiously researched historic novels. They're immersive, ingenious, up until now, they've all featured lesbian heroines. The BBC's popular television adaptations include The Victorian Era Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.
Waters is aware that the lack of lesbian characters in her new book may upset some fans. But she says it was not a calculated decision.
Ms. WATERS: Well, it wasn't a novel about sexuality for me at all. 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.
ULABY: Water's own family exemplifies the profound class shifts in British society after World War II. Her grandmother served at a great house. Sarah Waters has a Ph.D. In The Little Stranger, she wanted to explore the undermining of England's rigid class system after the war. Setting it at Hundreds Hall let her introduce Gothic elements, which she loves. But she did not set out to write a ghost story.
Ms. WATERS: I kind of had a vision of a country house, a fading gentry family living inside it, trying to - trying and failing, really, to keep pace with a changing world. And then I thought, actually, you know, so many middle-class people felt actively menaced by postwar changes. How about if I give them a real menace here and make it something actively supernatural and make it a haunted house story?
Unidentified Man: The house was smaller than in memory, of course.
ULABY: Great fiction is filled with houses that are almost characters in themselves. Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger is in that way like Tara in Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice's Pemberley, and Rebecca's Manderley.
Unidentified Man: What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house's uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died and hung like tangled rat's tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams.
ULABY: The pull of the past inspires author Sarah Waters. She says she's fascinated by its difference, but she always remains mindful, she says, of its proximity.
Ms. WATERS: I mean, the 40s, you know, we're talking 60 years, but I think relationships between men and women, relationships between the classes were very different. And I think we always need to remember that history changes very rapidly and that things we think of as very secure are, in fact, very provisional and we always need to be reminded of that.
ULABY: That provisionality is one of the excitements of history for Sarah Waters and what keeps her, she says, writing about it.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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