Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters Read Along: Part 1

This week we are discussing Chapters 1 to 8.

For everyone else’s thoughts, check the links at The Estella Society.

In some ways I am a little wary of supernatural horror because it can easily be so realistic that the creepiness factor gives me bad dreams. I know that it sounds strange, but I can read about vampires and zombies with no problems at all because I know that they are pure fiction. However, as soon as a story becomes plausible and only slightly removed from normal life I find it infinitely more terrifying. Of course, this only holds true if the horrific aspects are convincing and the atmosphere is created well and maintained properly. After my slight disappointment with The Woman In Black, I was eager to try another Gothic Horror. I saw the BBC adaptation of Tipping The Velvet, so I was interested to see how Ms Waters would handle this genre.

At first the book does not seem to be a horror story at all and more of an exploration of the class changes in post-war Britain. We see victims of these shifts in the class structure from both sides. Dr Faraday’s parents were working or lower middle class, but he proved to be very intelligent and so won scholarships to study medicine. He is now considered to be an outsider by the members of his original class, whilst the upper class sees him as ‘jumped up above his station’. He is welcomed by neither group and must make do with what friendship he can find.

The Ayres family has been hit very hard by the reforms to inheritance tax and land ownership that were needed to reduce the National Debt built up during the War. Many large country houses fell into disrepair at this time, with many sold to the nouveaux riche or opened to the public in order to increase income. Hundreds Hall is falling apart and the family seems unwilling to make the big decisions that could save it. As such they are an embarrassment to those who could afford to live in the house, whilst the lower classes look on them with pity or resentment. Society has moved on and it is no longer desirable to be in service in a big house, as Betty points out, with much more personal freedom available for those employed in factories. Given their exclusion from polite society, it is hardly surprising that this group of social misfits is drawn to the local doctor who does not fit in either.

One aspect of horror that is often lacking, especially in the more gory films, is any chance to become properly acquainted with the characters. Without this, it is very difficult to really care about them or their situation. Ms Waters takes plenty of time to introduce Dr Faraday and the Ayres family, so that we are comfortable with them and feel anxious or frightened for them as events unfold. They are all fairly normal people, which makes them easy to identify with, so that we come to care for them as they reveal more and more about themselves. She also creates a wonderfully haunting atmosphere in the dilapidated Hundreds Hall. This is exactly the kind of building, with its flickering, inadequate lighting and air of imminent collapse that would set anyone’s imagination soaring. The creaky doors, numerous dustsheets and sudden draughts are almost cliché in their use in horror films, but they are very effectively deployed here.

So, is this a book that I could read after dark? Certainly, although the first description of the ghostly / malevolent entity had me shivering and made the hair on the back of my neck rise. The description itself was extremely creepy, but the real horror came from the reaction of the person who had witnessed the appearance, and the effect that the memory had on them. However, this breakdown also places us in a situation of doubt: is the entity real or simply a hallucination? At this point we do not know, but there is definitely something very wrong about the household.

I should say that, in Britain, the phrase ‘a little stranger’ refers to an unborn baby, especially if its parentage is at all in question. This makes me think that the entity we are dealing with could very well be that of the long dead Susan Ayres. I am also confused about the fact that nobody ever questions Betty about what she has seen or heard. I know that there is the usual class prejudice and that she proved herself to be a liar on her first meeting with Dr Faraday, but there are hints that she knows more than she is saying because when she does say something she is shut down and ignored. Finally, I am a little disturbed by Dr Faraday’s relationship with Caroline. The incident after the dance was really rather horrible, and I am not sure if they can continue to be friends now.


  1. GREAT post and the hair on the back of my neck just stood up! I find it interesting that the British refer to unborn babies of iffy parentage as "little strangers." I adored this book for its slow build and for the way Waters has with her characters. They were so real, and that certainly made the book all the more terrifying for me. Good stuff!

    The Estella Society thanks you!

  2. We Brits have lots of weird sayings! :D

    I found the slow pace to be so much more effective than I expected, because it helps to build tension and lets you explore the characters more thoroughly.

  3. A very insightful post about the first half of the book! Thanks for adding more background info. I wasn't aware of the meaning of "a little stranger" nor of the rapid decline of the land-owning class because of all kinds of heavier taxing during/after WWII.
    Even after the long introduction to the family and the doctor, I still don't feel close to them, nor do I particularly care whether something awful befalls them. It'd better though, because this is a gothic novel after all.

  4. Thanks! I aim to educate at every opportunity! :D

    I read somewhere that Ms Waters originally planned this book to be a commentary on the post-war class upheaval but that it somehow became a ghost story. I would say that she actually manages to do quite a good job of both by the end. I hope you do start to care, although I am not sure that the characters are very sympathetic.

  5. Ah, thanks for filling us in on the meaning of a 'little stranger'! I never knew it had a meaning, though I've spent plenty of time wondering what it meant in the context of this book.

  6. That's interesting about the phrase "a little stranger." I wasn't aware of that. I too assumed that it was in reference to Susan, but I'm not so sure any more.

    I too was horrified by Dr Faraday and how he's acted towards Caroline. He is creepy in a non-supernatural way. I'm interested to see how that plays out.

  7. That's OK: it is a fairly common British saying, as far as I know. I am not sure that it such a great title for the book though, because it does make you wonder so much about who or what it is.

  8. Now that I've finished the book I am still not totally sure who or what the 'little stranger' is, which is a bit frustrating.

    Dr Faraday is almost stalker-ish in his treatment of Caroline, and his determination to ignore the possibility of a super-natural cause for all the 'accidents' does more harm than good :(

  9. Thank you for including that bit about the phrase 'a little stranger'. I spent about half my book trying to pin down where the title was coming from.

    This is my first Sarah Waters book and I really enjoyed how this was a historical fiction and a suspense/ghost story. As you said, we really get to know the characters and the atmosphere of the times and place.


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