Some reviews are easier to write than others. There are those stories that inspire the briefest of descriptions and the simplest of impressions. These aren’t bad stories necessarily; they can be quite good. But after the reading or viewing (novel or book), everything I want to say falls neatly in place. And there might not be much to say other than things like “very suspenseful” or “just an all-around fun bit of horror.” Such stories don’t require layers of analysis. Nor will they transport me to wider worlds that inspire endless contemplation. Then there are books like Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger. After the reading I realized there was so much I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to learn. These thoughts and curiosities I had, well, they were all jumbled up, and I had to start another book while I allowed some time for these ideas to settle and come together in their own due time.
A story that provokes simple impressions, I have stated, can be very good but it can also be very poor. This “either/or” explanation doesn’t work so well with stories that inspire a complex set of thoughts. Such complexity hardly unfolds as the result of a poorly written story. The opposite is true. To get to the point – The Little Stranger is an excellent book. Superb! Bravo!
The Little Stranger has all the ingredients I love in a haunted house tale. Its “house” is more than “the sum of its ghosts”, meaning, its mystery is innate and not the result of a phantom that goes “boo”. The house, Hundreds Hall, has a personality all its own. This is a story that falls under the genre of “Gothic”, and so once again, I found myself climbing that tree of this mammoth genre and exploring its various branches. Very willingly I did this. With excitement and curiosity. I found myself comparing this story to other great literary haunted house novels but never suspecting it of concept plagiarism. Putting aside ghosts and haunted houses, the story that takes place outside these elements is engaging and speaks to matters of the heart. I came to know the characters of the story quite well. I enjoyed visiting the Ayers family in their run-down manor and taking in all their nuances and eccentricities, their madness if I may be so bold. And I have Dr. Faraday to thank. Through his eyes the first-person narrative unfolds. There is a love story in here as well. A sad love story built on longing and yearning that puts to mind that painful old adage “you can’t always get what you want.” (Thank you, Rolling Stones,!) Because his viewpoint is “skewed” (biased) , his account of the house itself and the events that take place within its walls add to the “Skewiness” (I made this up – that state of being “skewed”) of an already “Skewed” (twisted) place and situation. Finally, I love the unique “agents of scare” that are built into the house. These would be what are otherwise neutral structural components, except that when they are manipulated by mysterious forces, they become quite creepy.
There. I gathered together all these Sarah Walter’s inspired complexities from my head and condensed and simplified them into one paragraph. My work here is done. Not! Silly you for believing that. For you see, now I have to explain in more detail what the hell I was getting at in the paragraph above. So here comes the meat of this review!
Plot in Brief (Some spoilers)
The story takes place in the United Kingdom. It begins in 1919. As previously mentioned, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of Dr. Faraday, the family physician for the Ayers family. As a child from a humble background, the young Faraday marveled over the impressive display that was Hundreds Hall. He greatly admired the family that owned and ran it as well. Who didn’t? The Ayers were highly respected members of the noble class and they shared bits of their greatness via the feats they gave to celebrate Empire Day. The Colonel and his wife parade about with their six-year-old daughter Susan and receive grade admiration from the crowds, which are partly made up of folks from the “lesser” classes. Most of the people are not allowed in the grand Hall but young Faraday is lucky. His mother was once a servant for the Ayers and using her connections to the household staff, she is able to grant her young boy son entrance to the Hall. And he is impressed with what he sees.
Shortly thereafter, little Susan dies, triggering change. The Ayers cease to throw Empire Day fetes. The Colonel and his wife have two more children after her death (Caroline and then Roderick). Later the Colonel dies. Things are never the same.
Fast forward thirty-years later, post-World War 2 Britain, and Faraday is now a country doctor and the family physician for the remaining Ayers. He is saddened at the state of the hall; rundown and in great disrepair, the landscape is unmaintained. Still he admires the Hall and covets the family unit itself; he wants in. The family has lost much of their social standing. Roderick, wounded with a limp during his service in the war, struggles with the finances. Caroline is somewhat of a recluse, more so is her mother. And there is a hint of madness among the family.
In attempt to regain social graces, the Ayers throw a small party for other well-to-do families. It doesn’t go well. The family dog bites the nine(?)-year-old daughter of one of the guests. It’s normally a passive dog. Was the dog possessed by something? A spirit perhaps? Roderick thinks so. According to him, he has been experiencing strange happenings in his bedroom. His mirror moves on its own accord. Fire erupts in his room, source unknown. He goes mad and is locked away.
Meanwhile Dr. Faraday falls in love with Caroline. She mildly returns this love but is quite ambivalent about this. The servants are witnesses to what could be supernatural activity. They believe the house is not only haunted but evil. Mother and daughter fall prey to the strangeness of the house. Faraday tries to reassure them. But its as if the house and its family have some kind of figurative disease for which the doctor cannot cure, to his frustration and great sorrow.
Is all this the work of the ghost of little Susan who dies as a child so long ago? Oh what is going on?
Similarities to other classic works
To begins this section, I quote from Wikipedia’s article on The Little Stranger:
A mix of influences is evident to reviewers: Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe.
I will address this claim, author by author.
Henry James – Turn of the Screw
With the exception of The Jolly Corner, the only work I read from Henry James is The Turn of the Screw. But Turn of the Screw is a fine example of an inspirational source, so I’ll use that piece for comparison.
In many “spooky episodes” of our favorite television stories, a Scooby-Doo-type premise plays out – a trickster was behind the haunting all the time. There is always that person that suspects such from the very beginning. “There has to be a logical explanation,” the character will say. Well, I’m going to reverse this scenario. In both Turn of the Screw and The Little Stranger, a supernatural explanation is offered early on in the story. But we the readers know that there is something more going on to account for the bizarre events that we have encountered across the pages. In the James novella, it is surmised that the ghosts of two deceased adulterers, a former governess and a man-servant, are haunting the children, a young brother and sister who live at Bly Manor. But overall, the story hints that the haunting is rising up from some far deeper source, something that is buried deep within the dark tunnels of the psyche of the children’s current governess. Likewise, Walter’s novel offers up a supernatural explanation to account for the ghostly-going-ons: the ghost of Susan, the girl that died so young, is haunting Hundred’s Hall.
In both stories, the authors give us a possible supernatural explanation.
James – former adulterous servants, man and woman, dead, ghosts corrupting the two innocent children, boy and girl. But overall the story offers a psychological explanation that may put to rest and claims of supernatural activity.
Walters – the ghost of a little girl, sister, Susan, is haunting the place. But it might be that something else is affecting the brother/sister siblings. The source of the scares might not have anything to do with the supernatural. The “ghost” might just be a “collective hallucination” that plagues a family stricken with sorrow and grief. Or maybe it’s the “times” (“these days” vs. “those days”) that is the ghost? This will be explained in further detail later in the article. (In the “Go-Go Gothic Section!” Oh boy!)
Also of note – both stories feature a brother and sister as lead characters that fall victim to a haunting that occurs in their own home.
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
Both stories treat the houses in each tale (Hill House and Hundred’s Hall) as conscious entities. The houses in question are either troubled, diseased, or downright evil. In addition, both stories offer a theory that a character is unintentionally projecting negative energy upon the house, and this is what is causing the disturbances. In Jackson’s story The Haunting of Hill House it is Eleanor Lance. In Walter’s story it is Roderick. Or if not him, someone else, but who?
Wilkie Collins – ????
Duh I dunno. I never read anything by him. I should change this. (This was the easiest section to write! Hey, I only said I would address these claims, and address I did. I just forgot to fill the envelope with a letter.)
Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher
Ah, my favorite and perhaps the tale I find most similar to The Little Stranger. I’ve loved The Fall of the House of Usher since I was a kid. I didn’t need that Wikipedia list to let me know that this was a major source of inspiration, for Poe’s ghost kept calling out to me as I progressed through the book.
Both stories are told from the outsider’s perspective. Each is narrated in the first person. Both narrators are visitors/guests of the family that live in the houses that are at the center of the stories. Both outsiders (The Little Stranger – Dr. Faraway/The Fall of the House of Usher – Unnamed Narrator) bear witness to the fall of great families. They watch in horror as the ones they love succumb to madness and grief. Both try and do what they can to ease the suffering of the families but in the end their efforts are futile. They feel helpless, wishing there was something they could do. It doesn’t help that they are caught up in a situation where there understanding is limited. You can’t fight a disease when you don’t even know what it is.
Also, both stories deal with an adult tortured brother and sister that are heirs to the family’s house and legacy. Likewise, they are heirs to a curse.
Similar Yet Unique
Although The Little Stranger’s influences can be found in the aforementioned literary works, it stands on its own. It is not a carbon copy; the houses in these stories are not of the cookie-cutter design. Rather, let’s think if these houses (and the stories surrounding them) coming together to form a neighborhood. Hundreds’ Hall belongs in a neighborhood that boasts Hill House, Bly Manor, etc. One should be proud to be welcomed in such a community.
Here I go for the umpteenth time wandering on the trails of that behemoth forest that is Gothic Literature, picking at and extracting from only some of its sprawling branches, stealing clues to bring to the next clearing where light will shine upon them and illuminate me on the story that I am currently holding in my heart. I’ve made such journeys for several articles here at this blog, and again I must emphasize that in no way am I trying to encapsulate in one article everything you needed to know about Gothic Literature but were afraid to ask. I can only explore the elements of which I am familiar and examine them within the context of the story that I am reviewing. So, with that said, hello Gothic elements, meet The Little Stranger!
The collision of the past and the present; this is a common theme in Gothic Literature. The most obvious example in terms of ghostliness is, well, the ghost itself, or the ethereal remains of someone who died long ago making its presence known in current times. But think also of the ruins of an old castle. Long ago the castle served a mighty purpose, but not so anymore and yet part of its structure remains. What use is it to us now? Does it have something to share with us? Is it relaying a message to us modern folk about the past? Is it hiding a secret within its stone walls? To ponder such questions is to open oneself up to the conflicts that often arise within Gothic Literature.
Gothic stories often take place in times of social change. There’s a new society on the horizon, a new social structure is replacing the old. Those that cling to the old ways have trouble navigating in the new terrain. Outmoded institutions still exist but the forces of change erode their foundations. Every passing moment they shed life-supporting stones.
After I read the book The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, I explored some of the characteristics of American Southern Gothic, for that is the genre that best describes this novel by Siddons, at least according to critics and reviewers. What I learned parallels with what is going on here in The Little Stranger, even though the story contexts are separated by time, circumstance, and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Though taking place in the early 1970’s, The House Next Door deals with themes that were spawned by the American Southern Gothic movement that came into being following the events of the Civil War. The Institution of slavery had come to an end. The institutionalized social order crumbled. Two quotes from Wikipedia on Southern Gothic explain some the significance:
continuing pressures of the past upon the present, particularly with the lost ideals of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy
Similar to the elements of the Gothic castle, Southern Gothic gives us the decay of the plantation in the post-Civil War South
A different kind of social change was occurring in the United Kingdom post World War 2, the time and place of the events that occur in The Little Stranger. The Wikipedia article for The Little Stranger publishes a quote from author Sarah Walters on her intentions for writing the book that explains some of this social change (quote is originally from the Toronto Star):
I didn’t set out to write a haunted house novel. I wanted to write about what happened to class in that post-war setting. It was a time of turmoil in exciting ways. Working class people had come out of the war with higher expectations. They had voted in the Labour government. They want change…. So it was a culture in a state of change. But obviously for some people it was a change for the worse.
Also of note is this, from the same article:
Reviewers note that the themes in The Little Stranger are alternately reflections of evil and struggle related to upper class hierarchy misconfiguration in post war Britain. Waters stated that she did not set out to write a ghost story, but began her writing with an exploration of the rise of socialism in the United Kingdom and how the fading gentry dealt with losing their legacies
Now, remember at the beginning of the article when I wrote “After the reading I realized there was so much I wanted to say, so much more I wanted to learn.” (See, the words of the past are colliding with these present words – oooooo! How Gothic!) Upon learning of the existence of such a social change in Great Britain, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to delve into these significant changes and report on all there was to know about the dwindling of a system that “involved the hereditary transmission of occupation, social status and political influence” (Quote is from Wikipedia: Social Class in the United Kingdom.)
But alas, this is a major feat, a job for a social historian. Suffice it to say, the noble class lost much of their nobility. Fortunes were lost. Let’s look at the Ayers’ household, the family at the forefront of The Little Stranger. They represent what Walters called the “fading gentry”. They did not benefit from the change. At the center of this story stands Hundreds Hall. Once a grand estate now a rundown shell of its former self. It is no accident that the beginning of the story features a memory of the grand ol’ days of Hundreds Hall and the celebration of Empire Day. Good times for the Ayers. But the British Empire would crumble as would the legacy of the Ayers. The remaining family longs for the past but it is gone. If only the “grand ol’ days” went marching on, status quo preserved, the family’s standing financially and socially secured. Hmm, now is there a symbol of any sort in this book for “better days” or, more appropriately, “what could have been?” Yes. Little Susan, who died so young. Her sister and brother never met her.
Susan Ayers – The Ghost of What You Cannot Have. (SPOILERS)
Try to capture a ghost. You can’t. Forget about Ghostbusters and 13 Ghosts and other movies that feature sci-fi technology that allows hunters to suck these poor phantoms into some kind of device. If you reach out to touch a specter your hand passes right through it. Throughout the book, the characters go mad when they confront what could be the ghost of the little girl – the little stranger. I submit that she represents a past that could have been but was not meant to be. That is what is so maddening about her. They can sense this more perfect past; they feel it in their hearts, even see it with their own eyes. It’s there haunting them. But they can’t have it. She is a tease. Susan would be the continuation of the finer way, the preservation of the status quo. She died. And so will the Ayers. Prematurely. One by one. Death of the body or death of the mind. All because they tried to hold on to that which is designed to pass through their fingers. Then there’s Dr. Faraday. He doesn’t see the ghost but he holds onto a misguided love for a family, for a woman, for a house that no longer exists in the form that he has embraced. He survives to tell this sad tale. Maybe that’s the trick for survival. If you embrace the ghost but are ignorant of its composition, then you can endure in sadness. Become the ghost maybe. For quite often a ghost doesn’t realize its dead.
Agents of The Scare
Wow, a lot of cheeriness going on in the above section, huh? Let’s lighten things up a bit with good ol’ fashion “fun” horror. In all haunted houses, there are objects and structural components of a house that are downright creepy. Maybe it’s the swaying chandelier. Or the specter that traipses down the curving stairwell, adding to the unpleasantness of each stair tread. How bout the wall hanging portrait with the moving eyes? That locked room? (How about that wardrobe in the movie The Conjuring? Clap-clap-clap!) You get the drift. I just wanted to take some time to highlight some of the unique Agents of The Scare that are found in this book.
Yes there is a creepy set of stairs and a landing that foreshadows doom. Oh, there is a mirror that moves on its own accord and freaks out poor Roderick (analysis – he doesn’t like confronting himself in his present state). There is mysterious writing on the wall and strange burns spots on the ceiling. But what I enjoyed most was the servant bell and the tube. The bell, I can’t remember how it was described, perhaps decorative rope, rings out and calls a servant to a given room. Except there was no one in the room from which the bell tolled! Then there is “the tube”, which in the book is described as a “19th century tube communication device linking the abandoned nursery.” It descends from the upstairs down into the kitchen. If the nursery is abandoned, then what is that whooshing sound that makes its way to where frightened maids work? The sound of breath. The sound of whispers. A child’s whisper. Imagination? The servants are freaked out by it. And you will be too!
The Little Stranger – A Movie?
I think I’ll wrap things up. What else is there to say? I have said so much and have withheld so much as well. A great book it is! I discovered there is a movie based on the book. It doesn’t seem like it has gotten great reviews. I will wait a while before watching it. I want my memory of Hundreds Hall preserved with the stuff of mystery and intrigue; a brilliant form of eeriness. I wish not to cheapen such a memory with the trappings of a poorly made film. That would be an injustice. With that said, peace out.