‘If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, Who you gonna call? (ghostbusters)’
Sarah Waters is an author whose novels I love so much I have to ration them, so that I’m never without one in the wings. As it’d been several years since I’d read The Night Watch and I’d yet to read The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests, I thought I’d indulge. Choosing the first of these, I found myself quickly engrossed in the chilling tale of the decline of both Hundreds Hall and the resident Ayres family, as told by Dr Faraday, a local GP and family friend.
Faraday first visits the country house as a boy, on the occasion of a summer fête, and even at that early age, is enraptured by its grandeur. His mother used to be in service at Hundreds Hall, so he is allowed access to the servants’ quarters.
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 fête. 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.
When a servant allows him a glimpse through the curtained barrier into the family’s private domain, he can’t help himself and prises an ornamental acorn from the wall with his penknife.
I wanted to possess a piece of it.
Despite being born without a silver spoon in his mouth, Faraday’s ambition and hard work allow him to escape a life in service like that of his parents, by training as a doctor. Thirty years pass before Faraday has cause to visit Hundreds Hall again, called out to check on the health of the Ayres’ young maidservant, Betty, who’d been complaining of stomach pains. Faraday is shocked by the dilapidation that has occurred since his first visit all those years ago. The hall is now run by the son, Roderick Ayres, although it is plain that the family’s finances are insufficient to meet the house’s maintenance needs. Initially, Faraday is treated with condescension by Roderick, his sister Caroline, and their mother, Mrs Ayres, but over time, a friendship develops and he becomes a regular visitor to the hall, assisting them as their fate spirals downwards.
Having created a backdrop of decline and decay, Waters then lowers the temperature a few notches with a darkening psychological mystery. All is not what it seems. Hundreds Hall is not just a case of the faded grandeur of an Aristocratic family in decline, but dark forces are at work in the house. One by one, each of the family members is undone by the sinister goings on in the house, and we are left to fathom whether the cause is psychological, psychosomatic, or some kind of phantasm.
I’ve been a chicken about the supernatural since childhood. When I was growing up, my Dad, who was a pastor of a church, frequently used to get called out to ‘exorcise’ eastenders with over-excitable imaginations who’d freaked out after mucking about with ouija boards. The tales my Dad used to tell over the dinner table, of the things people had claimed to witness, made my 70’s bowl cut stand on end. His antics resulted in him being plastered across the front page of The Newham Recorder with the headline ‘The Exorcist’ above it. It wasn’t the newspaper as such that made me sensitive to scary stuff (although having your dad in the local paper as a vigilante ghostbuster is its own special variety of horror, unless he happens to be Bill Murray). To that end, The Little Stranger did have me reading until long passed my bedtime with eyes like saucers, unable to put the book down as the terror unfolded.
Taut psychological mystery aside, I think the brilliance of The Little Stranger really lies in its portrayal of the British class system. On the one hand, Faraday represents the birth of a new and increasingly mobile middle class, but his obsession with the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall in particular, captures that inexplicable proclivity that the British often show towards the Aristocracy. Also, the tension between the superstition of the past being usurped by an emerging modern scientific rationality is finely depicted in the novel. I really enjoyed The Little Stranger, and now have to pace myself as sadly, I’ve only one of Sarah Waters’ novels left to read. I just hope to god she’s busily working on the next one!