Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a book that’s so well written you almost don’t notice you’re reading it rather than breathing it. It’s a historical novel, set in England in 1948, a period with which I am very familiar. Waters never puts a foot wrong. I suppose it could also be classified as horror—it’s a book about a poltergeist, or something like a poltergeist, some dark thing that settles in a house and destroys the family who live there. It’s published as literary fiction, though it’s nice to see it has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson award and is thus getting some genre recognition. I think reading it as a genre reader—with the expectation that the weird stuff will be real, not a delusion, gives one a different experience than reading it as a mainstream reader, with the expectation that it would not turn out to be real. It’s quite interesting to consider where it belongs, genre-wise. It’s certainly a haunted house story, but it’s so much more than that.
(There are no spoilers for specific events in what follows, but general vague discussion and thematic potential spoilers.)
This is not the kind of book I normally read. Waters is a literary writer, her earlier novels have had a lot of attention (Orange Prize nominations, Booker Prize nominations) but I’d never heard of them. I heard of The Little Stranger because the author happened to write an article about Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and the influence of Tey on her own novel. And indeed, The Little Stranger is deeply influenced by The Franchise Affair, and not in a simple way. It isn’t possible to read Tey now without being forcibly struck by the class issues, and that’s where Waters started, with the gentry in the big house in England in 1948, with their maid, and their doctor, Faraday, whose own class status is ambiguous.
It’s very normal to write a traditional ghost story from the point of view of a semi-outsider, and a family doctor is exactly that kind of person. We see Faraday from inside, in first person, and yet he’s insubstantial in comparison with the family. This is Waters working with convention to confound expectations. Faraday is an unreliable narrator who never really believes in the poltergeist or whatever it is—and yet there’s another way in which he himself is the curse. It doesn’t start until he comes into the house. He longs for the house, and has since he was a little boy. His mother had been a maid in the house, he went there for an Empire Day event and was given a medal and stole an acorn from the plaster frieze, symbolically beginning the destruction. This scene begins the book, with Faraday as a lower class child admiring and envying the beautiful Hundreds house and being driven to a secret act of theft and destruction.
There are certain books in which the narrator falls in love with a house and family and attaches themselves to a convenient member of the family in order to belong. Brideshead Revisited is probably the most obvious, there’s also Aiken’s Morningquest. Faraday is in the tradition of these protagonists, outside and looking in enchanted—but it’s a different time. In 1948 houses like that were being taxed out of possibility for the families who had lived in them. This is the era when you “couldn’t get the servants,” when the rich were being taxed to pay for winning WWII and also to provide the National Health Service and free education for all. It’s the era that produced the cosy catastrophe. Things were becoming fairer for everyone, and the upper classes were genuinely being squeezed. The Ayres family are still alive, still there, but they have outlived their era, they have been rendered irrelevant by history. Waters considers what that would feel like, in a psychologically realistic way. But we see them always through Faraday’s envious eyes, and Faraday’s longing for Hundreds even as it disintegrates has something in it that isn’t entirely comfortable.
There’s a way in which the poltergeist is a real external supernatural entity. There’s another way in which it is Faraday himself. Caroline considers reports of poltergeists and their association with adolescents, and Seeley considers also repressed spinsters and menopausal women, but nobody considers repressed and longing doctors. Doctors are supposed to bring health but Roderick refers to the curse as a kind of infection. There’s definitely a way in which it is Faraday’s subconscious. There’s also a way in which the poltergeist embodies the forces of history, the lower classes attacking the upper classes. (Mrs. Ayres said that she felt England had no place for her any more, and Caroline, like the protagonists of The Franchise Affair, plans to flee to Canada. Canada’s literary purpose in British and American novels seems to be as a place for people to flee to. She might have been better going, as Mary Renault did at just this time, to South Africa.)
The best thing about The Little Stranger is that all these ways of viewing the poltergeist are not only valid but interesting. Whatever else it is, it is also real. Faraday can’t quite stop rationalising it away, but the text never tries to. If it’s symbolic, it’s also real, and without that it wouldn’t work.
I didn’t know it was classifiable as horror when I picked it up the first time, I just knew it had the Tey connection, and I was therefore expecting it to be a mystery. I often read books without knowing much about them, and I prefer to avoid spoilers, but I usually can’t avoid knowing what genre they are! However, by the time I was overwhelmed by dread, I was also hooked. I found it a much more comfortable read this second time, when I knew what was going to happen. It’s undoubtedly literary fiction—it’s been nominated for literary awards, and everyone knows that literary fiction is what the Booker committee point at. It’s horror, or dark fantasy, because ditto for the Shirley Jackson award people. It’s undoubtedly a historical novel, and a very good one, one that does the thing Kay’s fantasy does of using the fantastic to get closer to the concentrated essence of a period. And above and beyond all that, it is by my definitions a gothic.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year, and I’m so glad nobody had told me anything that would put me off it. Waters’s The Night Watch, a historical novel set in WWII, is also brilliant, and a little reminiscent of Renault’s thirties novels—I mean this as very high praise.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.