The Little Stranger

By: Sarah Waters
Published By: Riverhead Hardcovers

There is a scene in The Little Stranger that reminds me in both tone and substance of one of the more horrifying scenes from The Haunting of Hill House, by pre-eminent American Gothic writer, Shirley Jackson.

Mrs. Ayres, matriarch of the decaying old family by the same name, has gone up to the nursery to investigate the strange behavior of a "speaking tube," a gadget that allowed people to talk back and forth in large buildings in the days before phones and intercoms. It seems the two remaining family retainers have reported that the tube is not only whistling on its own (a whistle is installed in each end of the tube so that the speaker can blow on it to alert those on the other end that a communication is desired), but when maid-of-all-work, Betty, puts her ear to the tube, she can hear a rustling, the soft intake of air, a presence.

The tube communicates between the nursery - on the top floor - and the kitchen - in the basement, where the servants once lived and worked.

Mrs. Ayres, a faded beauty, and tone-perfect symbol of the post-war (II) end-of-an-era England, troops up to the attic, determined to prove to the silly women that it's all stuff and nonsense. A creeping unease is replaced by frank terror when she is not only locked in the nursery by an unseen hand, but when she sees - peeping through the keyhole - a flitting shadow dashing back and forth past the door. Worse, the tapping footsteps the shadow makes finally stop outside the door, and whatever-it-is begins to press upon the door, bending it inward, seeking a way in.

As in The Haunting of Hill House, this scene emphasizes isolation, the fear of the unknown and barely seen, and the victim's uncertainty if these events are real, or worse, only in her imagination.

The story is told from the point of view of Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged, slightly priggish, and more than slightly sexually repressed small-town physician who, in a half curious, half star-struck way, befriends the Ayres family, and entangles himself in their fate and fortunes, clinging perhaps more stubbornly than the family members themselves to the tattered remnants of their once noble past.

Everything about the Ayres family signals decay: Mrs. Ayres' faded beauty; daughter Caroline's stolid, peasantlike demeanor and behavior; son Roderick's (yes, a bow to Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher) descent into madness - even the house itself breathes a fetid air of damp, mold, disuse and rot.

If Shirley Jackson's Hill House was dry, dusty, cobwebby and malign, The Hundreds (the name of the Ayres family seat) is wet, moldering, crumbling and forlorn.

What is frightening about The Hundreds is not so much the house itself - though the pervasive heaviness, and writer's skill in creating an atmosphere almost too humid to breathe rivals Jackson at every turn - but rather what may or may not be scampering about in it.

It all starts innocently enough: a dinner party deteriorates into a neighborhood skirmish as the bumbling old never-harm-a-fly family dog uncharacteristically attacks a visiting child. Soon after, strange, eel-like little Ss are found etched into hidden spots on the walls - along with small marks in improbable places that look for all the world like burn marks. Add to that a sudden, terrifying blaze that starts almost spontaneously in Roderick's room, and the stage is set for what proves to be a chilling ghost story of modest but maddening proportions.

Dr. Faraday is the perfect narrator - a man of science who pshaws his way through strange event after strange event, but brings his own twin demons of personal ordinariness and sexual repression to bear - making us wonder if the whole story doesn't take place in his head, rather than in the house.

While the story never reaches the point of "I can't put my foot over the side of the bed I'm so scared" proportions, it will keep you turning pages well past lights out, and will likely haunt your dreams for weeks to come.

Comments

Emily said…
Ooh, I really want to read this. I love Sarah Waters, and a good ghost story is always appealing. Thanks for the intriguing review!
Diane said…
I really like Sarah Waters. I have to read this one sometime. Thanks for the review.

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