The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger was the very first book that Jenny and I reviewed together here on Shelf Love (and the first book by Sarah Waters that I’d ever read). We both loved it, and with the movie coming out this year, we thought that now would be a good time to revisit it.

The book is set in late 1940s England. Our narrator, Dr. Faraday is a doctor from a modest family background who is called to check in on an ailing servant of the wealthy Ayres family, owners of Hundreds Hall. Faraday knew Hundreds Hall in his childhood, as his mother was a servant there, and he’s shocked to see what terrible condition the house is in. Over the next months, he becomes embroiled in the lives of the Ayres family, offering medical treatment to help Roderick with his war injury and giving advice and a listening ear to Mrs. Ayres and daughter Caroline. It soon becomes evident that there’s more going wrong at Hundreds that the family’s reduced financial circumstances. Roderick believes that there’s some sort of curse on the house or on him. Ringing bells, fire, and mysterious writing on the wall keep the family off balance — and worse.

Because our second reading of the book was colored by our knowledge of the ending, our reflections our discussion will contain spoilers. If you don’t want to be spoiled, read the book for yourself! Our previous discussion includes our theory about the source of the hauntings, so you may want to read that as well if the book left you puzzled.

Teresa: This is a fantastic period haunted house story, with lots of creepy moments and an extremely unsettling conclusion. I loved it when I first read it, and it’s just as good the second time around. Knowing what was coming made all those early moments of unease even more potent. Faraday’s fascination with the house, which seemed a little much in my first reading, was downright sinister this time.

Jenny: I always love re-reading, and I think this book is particularly rich and rewarding a second time around. I was prepared to think that there was never anything really supernatural going on — just a physical “stranger” — but that’s not what I thought at all. I found it very otherworldly and eerie even though I had a culprit in mind. All that pent-up and unacknowledged rage and class resentment! And I completely agree with you about Faraday’s obsession with the house. On a first reading, it seems it’s the family that’s being destroyed. On a second reading, it becomes clear that the target of malice is the house itself.

Teresa: The house is both a target and a desired object, though, don’t you think? After all, the book begins with an act of destruction that is also a theft. The desire to possess and to destroy end up being the same thing.

What I find fascinating is the question of how conscious Faraday is of what he is doing — not just the supernatural aspects of it, but also how he wheedles his way into the family. He describes himself as always wanting to be helpful and eventually as being in love, but on reflection, none of it seems real. More than anything else, he wants in. But how well does he understand that about himself?

Jenny: Yes, I agree — and that leads me to think that Faraday might not be capable of possessing without destroying, something that’s especially ironic since he’s meant to be a healer. (The most vivid images of him as a doctor are very clinical and gruesome: with the electrical machine on Rod, and on the table stitching up the little girl’s face.) The house and the family die off bit by bit, like a leper or an amputee.

I like your question about his self-awareness. He seems aware of some of his own issues: for instance, he names his moments of “dark dislike” of the family at least three times, and his discomfort — even humiliation — at the party where the real trouble begins. But I don’t think he’s aware of his desperation to be in, or his desire for the house, or the way the family is just a means to that end.

Even though this is a post-World War II book, I think of it as a post World War I book in a lot of its themes: the class issues, the treatment of shell shock, the Servant Problem, the burden of the land and the house. What do you think of the poltergeist as the manifestation of some of that national anger as well as Faraday’s personal grievance?

Teresa: There’s certainly more going on than just Faraday’s personal grievance. Everyone seems ready for the era of grand houses on massive estates to come to an end. We see that in the construction of council housing on the edges of the diminishing estate. It’s interesting that the people who live there want a wall so they can’t see Hundreds; resentment may play into that. Even the Ayres family doesn’t have much interest in maintaining Hundreds, and they clearly all resent the house to varying degrees. (If it were possible to fight a poltergeist and keep it out, the Ayres family wouldn’t have the will to do it.)

But it seems to me that Faraday is the one who can’t let go. He wants things to change so that he can be part of —  even in control of — the household that once held so much power over the community, including his own mother. The only way to for him to get in is to collapse the social order that kept him out, but it’s the social order that allowed homes like Hundreds to exist. He can’t have it both ways.

Jenny: And that’s what makes this whole book so complex. This is a book about a poltergeist — it absolutely is — and it’s as scary as that implies. But it’s also about the rage and resentment and entrapment and malice that cause a poltergeist. It’s class warfare, made bitterly personal, and brought into the bones and air of an old and beautiful home.

I think, on second reading, that this is absolutely a work of genius. There’s so much here: glances, touches, things unsaid, tiny horrors (references to Rebecca.) Sarah Waters, long may you write.

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12 Responses to The Little Stranger

  1. whatmeread says:

    I loved The Little Stranger, but I’m not sure how it will work as a movie just because of the secret of who is responsible for the manifestations, which grows on you as you read.

  2. Kristen M. says:

    Ooh, I’m going to have to give this a reread too! When I read all of the Sarah Waters books practically one after the other, I chose this as my favorite by far but I have forgotten much of it. I’m glad to hear that it holds up so well because I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to go back to it!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s my favorite, too, though I really like all her books. It holds up beautifully, though I told Teresa it’s a very different book when you have a culprit in mind than when you’re guessing!

  3. Jessie says:

    This was my first Sarah Waters’ novel as well, and I can’t wait to re-read it in the future. I completely agree that it is a work of genius. I hope the upcoming film will capture the atmosphere of the book.

    • Jenny says:

      I hope so too! It’s such a good book for atmosphere (nods to Rebecca, as I said, among lots of other things) and I’d love to see it done really well.

  4. Deb says:

    I’ve read a number of Sarah Waters’s novels and I find that I usually love the first three-fourths of every book I’ve read and then the last quarter just doesn’t seem to live up to what’s been building previously. It’s like the tightly-wound mechanism that was giving us an incredibly-propulsive plot and setting us up for some major twists/reveals just winds down. I felt this way about THE LITTLE STRANGER—the ending had a feeling of “oh well, I’ll just end it here.” The only Waters novel in which I did not find that was THE NIGHT WATCH, which might be because it is told chronologically backwards so the ending was already set. Not coincidentally, THE NIGHT WATCH is my favorite Waters novel.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I don’t agree with you about that at all. About any of her books, but about this one in particular. Indeed, I felt that the destruction of the house and family were only complete — and therefore the cause of the poltergeist only completely known — in the last 50 pages. It was extremely creepy to me and not at all a letdown. I gasped at the last page!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so interesting to hear that you didn’t care for the ending! The ending made the book for me, although I was enjoying it all along. I saw Waters speak a few years ago, and she said she actually started with the ending when the wrote this. I can’t recall having strong feelings about the endings of her other books–usually I just enjoy the ride so much that the end doesn’t matter.

  5. Anne Simonot says:

    Oh, one of my most favourite books— I want to reread it before the movie too. I adore the combination of class warfare, crumbling aristocracy, and just plain spookiness. It’s an amazing novel!

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