Warning: contains spoilers – or at least what I think is the spoiler.
This book is a welcome return to form after the self-consciously literary mess of The Night Watch. With that book, you could almost hear Waters’s publishing people going: ‘Sarah, you need to have a shot at the Booker here, so bang in a dodgy time scheme and make sure nothing really happens.’ The Little Stranger is a powerful contrast. It hums with freedom and energy.
Provincial postwar GP Dr Faraday becomes involved with the remnants of a great aristocratic family at the crumbling Hundreds Hall. Minor supernatural incidents give way to terrible, inexplicable events, the otherworldly chaos offset by external social change. In an interview with DoveGreyReader, Waters talks about the historical background:
I was interested in what was happening to the British class system then, with the Labour government being voted in and so on. I was reading post-war novels by authors like Elizabeth Jenkins, Marghanita Laski, Angela Thirkell, Josephine Tey, and I could see that class was this really painful issue. Britain was changing, working-class people were losing respect for the old hierarchies, servants were disappearing, large houses were crumbling away; middle-class people seemed to be in absolute agony about it – and the more conservative they were, of course, the worse the agony was.
Indeed, for all their grand history the Ayreses are essentially losing and for all his struggles and disappointments Faraday is essentially winning. On his first meeting with the family, the doctor recalls his own working-class background (his mother was a servant at Hundreds in its finer days) and feels ‘the peasant blood… rising’:
But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on the walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china…
Despite his resentment (or maybe because of it) Faraday is drawn to the Ayres’s practical, sensual daughter, Caroline, and is more concerned with their relationship than the strange, serious happenings around them. Faraday gets a kick out of ‘driving up that same road in my own car with the squire’s daughter at my side’ but, as their courtship progresses, becomes divorced from her true feelings, and does no justice to her lost potential. As Faraday’s colleague Dr Seeley points out, Caroline is a prisoner of Hundreds:
Kept at home with a second-rate governess while the boy was packed off to public school. And then, just when she’d got out, to be dragged back again by her mother, so that she could wheel Roderick up and down the terrace in his Bath chair! Next I suppose she’ll be wheeling Mrs Ayres.
Faraday fails to understand why Caroline breaks off the engagement: because it offers more of the same. Caroline wants to sell up and travel the world while Faraday harbours barely concealed fantasies of becoming lord of the manor with a dutiful wife by his side.
Dr Seeley gives the closest Waters offers to an explanation for the haunting of Hundreds. He theorises that what we perceive as ghosts are projections of force created by the living.
The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration… the sexual impulse is the darkest of all, of course, and has to emerge somewhere. It’s like an electrical current; it has a tendency, you know, to find its own conductors. But if it goes untapped – well, then it’s a rather dangerous energy.
Caroline, too, speculates that ghosts are ‘part of a person… Unconscious parts, so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own.’ Everyone assumes that the Hundreds ghost, if it exists, is that of Mrs Ayres’s prematurely dead child, but Caroline says that ‘the house knows all our weaknesses and is testing them, one by one’. The family’s one servant, who senses something wrong from the beginning, insists that insofar as the malevolent spirit has a gender, it is male. ‘The ghost ‘hadn’t wanted her in the house, but it hadn’t wanted her to go, either. It was ‘a spiteful ghost, and wanted the house all for its own.”
Faraday distrusts the servant: ‘You’ve only had trouble, haven’t you,’ he tells Caroline, ‘since she’s been in the house?’ Her response: ‘You might as well say we’ve only had trouble since you’ve been in it!’ That final you, on the landing: who else?
At the end of the book, Faraday is visiting the empty house whenever he can, performing repairs and trying to stay its inevitable decline. To the end, he is unaware: ‘If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me.’ The line, and the novel, recall a similar paragraph of sublime horror:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.