The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters fills all my wants and needs when it comes to spine tingling spookiness.
After being called to the crumbling estate of Hundreds Hall for a medical emergency, Dr Faraday becomes drawn into the lives of the inhabitants: the elderly lady of the manor Mrs Ayres and her children, Roderick, a war veteran and Caroline a spinster. Caroline isn't much to look at but Faraday is attracted by her air of self-sufficiency. She's not like other women of her class, but this might be due to circumstances. The massive estate has only the family and one maid, a fourteen year old girl, taking care of it and they are failing badly. Roderick is struggling under the burden of the upkeep of the house, selling pieces of the land a little at a time to pay their debts.
The family cut costs by living in part of the house and limiting the use of electricity, but they are not beaten and try to 'keep calm and carry on.' These are physical discomforts that can be overcome. What they end up fighting are the spiritual battles against a malevolent force that threatens to destroy them. Faraday doesn't believe in spirits. He believes there is a madness taking over the residents of Hundreds. The question is when you finish reading The Little Stranger, what do you believe?
I totally bought into the supernatural elements of The Little Stranger. So much so that I had trouble sleeping. I felt like something was going grab me in the dark! Waters builds tension by writing long stretches of perfectly normal things like "let's go get drunk at a dance" or "bills! bills! bills!" then Bam! "something weird is going on." And you know they are coming because those chapters start with something like "Caroline told me later..." or "I was away at the time these events occurred..." You just know something is going to happen. Even then those events start out as a something the characters see out of the corner of their eye and builds into something that raises all the hair on the back of your neck.
That's not to say there isn't anything happening in between the scary parts. The Ayres are struggling in a time just after World War II where England is on the verge of great change. It's a time of opportunity for the hardworking middle class. The gentry are crumbling away like their great old houses. The Ayres can't afford the house and yet they won't let go of it.
Dr Faraday himself is a man in a between state. His family were uneducated, his mother worked as a nanny at Hundreds. Faraday worked hard to educate himself and become a doctor. He no longer fits in with the people he grew up with and yet he cannot be an equal to the gentry living at Hundreds. This complicates and adds layers to his relationship with Caroline.
Faraday narrates the story and whether he is a reliable narrator is up the reader. His medical opinion of the Ayres's situation actually impedes his ability to see what is going on. He never listens to what they tell him. He's quick to write it off as fatigue or stress. His solution is to put everyone in the mental hospital. In his darkest moments, he questions if there is more to it all and interestingly seeks the opinion of male colleagues. The women he pats on the head and tells, "You're tired." I wanted to smack him. He's impotent in the face of something he can't understand or explain away and stubbornly refuses to consider any other view.
What or who is the little stranger will depend on how you view the story. Waters is brilliant with her way of leading the reader in a certain direction yet leaving us to decide for ourselves. She doesn't beat us over the head with explanations. I love when an author believes in the reader's intelligence enough to do that. As for me and what I think it was (Spoiler highlight): Faraday's unconscious is the little stranger or poltergeist. His desire for the estate breaks free and manifests itself as a different thing for each character. Each had a weakness that it could exploit. He didn't do it on purpose but it happened. The last line reveals that he knows this somewhere inside himself. What did you think if you read it?
I loved The Little Stranger. It was so well written and intriguing. It's a little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit Evelyn Waugh. I highly, highly recommend it.
Borrowed from the library.