Of ghost stories, genre conventions, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

I stayed up later than usual yesterday night reading the final pages of Sarah Waters' latest novel, The Little Stranger, and it's been sticking in my head with the kind of persistence that usually signals an impending blog post. I've been a fan of Waters' books for years, starting with her first novel Tipping the Velvet all the way through The Night Watch, which I initially thought would be too grim for my tastes, but I loved it. I don't think The Little Stranger is my all-time favorite, but it's wormed its way into my head and made the world look darker and creepier. This post is part review and part musing on one of my favorite genres, the ghost story. There are spoilers ahead, though I'm sticking the biggest one in the comments. Still, if you haven't read it and don't want to know how it turns out, you may want to stop reading now.

Still with me? All right then. The Little Stranger is about a haunted house—sort of. The house in question, Hundreds Hall, is a decaying Georgian manor, which, in 1947, is slowly exhausting the finances of the last remaining members of the aristocratic Ayres family. Siblings Roderick (injured in the war) and Caroline (brought home to nurse her brother) live with their aging mother, trying to keep their farm going while their ancestral house falls down around them. Dr. Faraday, the narrator, is initially called in to attend a sick housemaid but becomes increasingly friendly with the family. Creepy and inexplicable things start happening; the atmosphere gets tenser with each incident; and soon it becomes apparent that something wants to drive the family insane, kill them all off, or both.

This is a novel about the changing class system in postwar Britain as much as it is a ghost story or a Gothic tale. We're always aware of Faraday's ambivalent feelings toward the house and its inhabitants. He loves Hundreds and the dying way of life it represents, but he can't forget that he doesn't belong to the Ayreses' class. He's the son of a former Ayres family nurserymaid, and his working-class parents worked themselves practically to death to send him to medical school. Every time he starts to feel like he belongs with the Ayreses, he's reminded that he'll never be their equal. He starts an unlikely romance with Caroline, but seems to have a hard time summoning up a definite attraction to her. And yet he clings to the aristocratic ideal of the noble family in their country house even more fiercely than the Ayreses do, even as it becomes increasingly clear that there's no way this family can afford to maintain their crumbling estate.

Faraday fulfills a role found in a lot of ghost stories: the skeptical character who scoffs at the mere suggestion of anything supernatural, insisting that that strange noise was just the cat, that weird shadowy shape was an optical illusion—right up until he (or she) has an incontrovertible encounter with the ghost.* In some stories, the skeptic narrates the whole thing, prefaced by "Well, I used to not believe in ghosts, but then I had a very odd experience, and now I'm not so sure. It went like this…"

One of the interesting things about The Little Stranger, for me, is that Faraday never stops being the skeptic. His rational explanations get more and more strained as the novel goes on, as various reviewers have noticed, but he doesn't stop offering them. Another interesting thing, and another sign that Waters is playing with the genre conventions of the ghost story, is that we think we know who the ghost is before the novel is halfway over. We learn in the first few pages that Mrs. Ayres had a daughter who died as a small child, and we put two and two together. We think we're heading toward an ending that explains it all. But we're wrong.

[The last paragraphs of this post are in the comment section, because there's a plot element I want to discuss, but it's also a massive spoiler. Click through if you want to keep reading.]

* To take a few examples at random: the narrator of H.G. Wells's "The Red Room"; the insistently anti-supernatural Professor Parkins in M.R. James's "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'"; the hapless young man in Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth" who promises to disprove the ghostly events by sleeping in the haunted room and winds up dead as a result.

3 Responses to “Of ghost stories, genre conventions, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger

  1. Amanda says:

    [continued; use the Rot13 translator to decipher]
    What the deliberately ambiguous last few pages reveal, at least to this reader, is that
    Snenqnl vf gur tubfg (gubhtu abg va n Fvkgu Frafr xvaq bs jnl; ur’f qrsvavgryl nyvir). Engure, gur tubfg vf fbzr qnex, qvfnibjrq, nzbeny cneg bs Snenqnl, n cneg gung jnagf gur ubhfr sbe uvzfrys rira vs gung zrnaf qevivat gur Nlerf snzvyl bhg bs vg. Vg’f n cneg bs uvzfrys gung ur arire npxabjyrqtrf, ohg juvpu gur ernqre fgnegf gb frafr naljnl. Naq va gur raq ur trgf gur ubhfr, ohg va n yvzvany, tubfgyl jnl, jnaqrevat va naq bhg jvgu gur fcner xrl ur arire ergheaf, frrvat (va gur svany vzntr) bayl gur ersyrpgvba bs uvf bja snpr va gur penpxrq jvaqbj cnarf.
    Naq guvf vf gur pbby guvat. Jr guvax jr’er ernqvat n tubfg fgbel sebz gur crefcrpgvir bs gur fxrcgvp jub’yy riraghnyyl or pherq bs uvf fxrcgvpvfz. Vafgrnq, jr’er ernqvat n tubfg fgbel sebz gur crefcrpgvir bs gur fbhepr bs gur unhagvat. Pnebyvar naq bar bs Snenqnl’f pbyyrnthrf bssre n “zbafgref sebz gur vq” rkcynangvba bs fbegf, vaibyivat qrgnpunoyr ovgf bs gur hapbafpvbhf. Ohg vg’f abg gur bayl cbffvoyr rkcynangvba. Bar pna nyfb nethr gung rira Snenqnl’f engvbany, fxrcgvpny, pbafpvbhf frys vf n ovg tubfgyl: ur unatf ba gb uvf erpbyyrpgvba bs gur ubhfr ng n cnfg zbzrag, n fhzzre nsgreabba va 1919, fb granpvbhfyl gung ur svanyyl frrzf abg gb abgvpr gur ubhfr’f cerfrag fgngr bs qrpnl. Ur unhagf gur ubhfr sebz gur zbzrag ur jnyxf vagb vg, nyvir naq oernguvat.

  2. Caroline says:

    Gung’f n irel vafvtugshy vagrcergngvba bs gur ebyr bs gur “yvggyr fgenatre”.
    Nf n fprcgvp zlfrys, V sbhaq gur eraqrevat bs gur “tubfg” fbzrjung sehfgengvat (gura jul nz V ernqvat n tubfg fgbel, lbh znl nfx va rknfcrengvba!), ohg nf gur gehr angher bs gur tubfg tenqhnyyl znavsrfgrq vgfrys, V sbhaq gur abiry gb or zber n cflpubybtvpny rknzvangvba bs iranyvgl naq frys-qryhfvba.

  3. Gemma says:

    Spoken like a true cynic!
    I have to think that the book is as much about a journey of skepticism to belief for the reader, as it was for Caroline.
    I love Betty’s account in the courtroom when she remembers Caroline saying “You” before jumping to her death from the sweeping staircase. I could just envisage her seeing Faraday there perhaps as that little boy who picked the plaster off the walls in his youth.
    A great book..just like all the others, only perhaps, a little better!