The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters

22 July 2010
Chapters 1-2
The main job of these two long chapters seems to be to establish the territory of the novel. Literally, in the case of ‘Hundreds’, the stately home where most of the action takes place. But also the standing of the main characters, particularly in terms of the mid-20th Century class system that is, so far, one of Sarah Waters’ main interests.

From the first page the narrator, a country doctor, describes how his outsider status was established practically at birth – and how he was always looking in on something beyond reach. He tells the anecdote of how, as a boy, he gets inside the big house and takes away a souvenir. He’s there to attend a garden party at which the lord of the manor – it’s hard to think of anything else to call him – is a patronising presence at the distribution of Empire Medals to the local children in 1919. The ceremony, and the medal itself, symbolise an old order, fast disappearing nearly 30 years later when the novel is set. We wonder why he’s telling us how, even then, the souvenir was somehow a disappointment: a little carved acorn he hacks off isn’t marble, but plaster. And, oh, I didn’t mention how the boy gets into the house: with its doors cordoned off with ribbons that seem to symbolise class barriers (although it doesn’t seem as clunky as that in the novel), only the son of a former servant could hope to gain entrance. He likes what he sees, but it isn’t his – even the acorn is destroyed when his mother discovers it.

Does the anecdote carry as much weight as I’m suggesting? Well… a year or two after a different war, our man is inside the house again: he’s visiting the maid, the only full-time servant the family now has. She’s only been there a month, and isn’t really ill – but it’s hard for her to settle, she finds the place creepy. But he persuades her it’s homesickness, and asks the family to let her avoid a particular staircase. Fine. The family are real gentry fallen on real hard times. Son: injured in the war and with a history of ‘nervous trouble’. Daughter: clever, plain. Mother: doing her best to keep up appearances. He likes them, and ends up visiting regularly to treat the son’s badly healed leg with an electric contraption left over from the war. Early on the mother gives him the old photograph of the staff which, he thinks, includes his mother.

He isn’t quite at ease with these struggling relics of an outmoded system. There are references to ‘the Colonel’, long dead, who wouldn’t have put up with… etc. Occasionally he’s staggered by the things they take for granted about a more deferential time, even though the daughter does almost as much domestic work as the maid and the son is working too hard to try to save the farm that provides a pitiful income. The daughter gives him ‘the sixpenny tour’ – a lot of their jokes refer to money in one way or another – tells him about what life was like as children in the big house. And Waters keeps having them make literary references – Miss Havisham and the lives of the Brontes, for instance – as though to let us know that this isn’t just a pot-boiler. I’ve probably missed some.

22 July
Chapters 3-5
I’m up to Roderick’s story in Faraday’s dispensary, and it seems straight out of M R James. Before the catastrophe in Chapter 3 there are only the smallest of clues, mainly to do with the intuitions of the maid, Betty, that this isn’t a straightforward literary novel about the shift in the social and economic landscape following WW2. The way Waters has set Betty up, with our first introduction to the girl in the form of her childish overreaction to unfamiliar surroundings, makes it easy for us not to notice the clues. (I think I only noticed them in hindsight.) But then we get the incident of the dog in the night-time, and there’s a shift in our expectations of this book.

Up to now, I’ve cleverly neglected to mention Caroline’s beloved black labrador, the one that’s always with her whenever she’s out of doors, and otherwise a constant lolloping presence in the house. Anyway, in Chapter 3 there’s the first evening party in years in the grand saloon in the house. At one level it forms part of Waters’ exploration of how the fading aristocracy desperately tries to adapt its pre-war forms of behaviour to post-war realities: Faraday is invited – you know, the son of the ex-servant – and so are the appalling new owners of another crumbling local pile. This could be a scene out of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and I wondered for a minute if the clever boy plucked from the working classes was in for it. But Waters uses the excruciating social occasion to take the story somewhere different. Or, she starts doing something different with the story she’s already started.

All along, the house has been almost a character. When the dog bites the face of the brattish young daughter of the representatives of the new London set, we don’t know whether to dismiss it as one old countryman later suggests: all dogs will bite if provoked far enough. We’re more comfortable with Caroline’s view that it was so far out of character as to be unbelievable – and there’s Betty, lurking in the background muttering about something else in the house being to blame. We’ve all read stories of houses that seem possessed by malevolent spirits, and it seems likely that this is turning into one of those. Waters keeps everything ambiguous, is always scrupulously careful to offer rational explanations… but a dog behaving so out of character, and the maid’s dark mutterings? We want to believe we’re not in the rational world Faraday thinks he’s in.

Anyway. There are more weird things when the doc next goes to the house. Caroline wants to show him something in Roderick’s room: scorch-marks on the back of the door, on the ceiling…. And, somehow, the marks seem to be just under the surface – as though from inside the fabric of the house. Explain that one, Rational Man. By now, we readers know Waters has taken these characters to a very strange place, and no amount of faux-scientific explanation is going to convince us otherwise.

Chapter 5 is almost all given over to the M R James story I mentioned. Like many of that author’s stories, it’s narrated by one character who is having to overcome another character’s scepticism. Roderick tells the story of why he didn’t appear at the disastrous party. He was getting ready, but some – what? – some thing was trying to prevent him. First his collar isn’t where he left it, and splashes into the wash-stand when his back’s turned. The same thing happens to his cuff-links – but this time, through the mirror, he catches sight of a black spider-like thing behind him…. The third thing, and the last straw, is the heavy shaving mirror. It starts to move, scraping along towards the basin – and suddenly launches itself at him. Everything about Roderick’s description is designed to make it sound uncannily plausible, as though some force is behind or inside each object. He shouts out at whatever is in the room – and feels, suddenly, that it’s gone. But he’s a gibbering wreck by now, and does not go downstairs.

Another clincher, if we choose to believe we’re not in Kansas any more, is the timing of his shout. He says it must have been just before the moment when the dog bit the girl’s face: obviously, the malevolent spirit slunk off looking for other prey. But Waters suddenly reminds us this isn’t really a story by M R James: Faraday doesn’t believe a single word of it. He begins to talk to Roderick as anybody in the real world would: as gently as he can – not gently enough – he lets Roderick know that this is a delusion, and that he wants to do something to help him. In his own narrative, Faraday lets us know how acute the symptoms are, and how surprised he is by them. Like all sceptics, he never shows a flicker of doubt. As readers, we nod wisely: he thinks he’s in the real world, but we know he’s in a novel.

23 July
Chapters 6-7
Faraday’s version of reality holds sway in these chapters, and Waters does everything she can to make his explanations sound plausible. More weird things happen which, if we choose to be hysterical about it, we can interpret as the fires of hell spontaneously igniting around Roderick from anything combustible around him. (One of the descriptions – second-hand, as reported by Faraday after Caroline tells him about the mysterious fires in Roderick’s room – actually mentions how hellish it looks.)

Or – or what? In 1940s England a war veteran under a lot of strain has plainly become a danger to himself and others and needs to be committed. This is what Faraday decides, and he goes through all the correct procedures to get Roderick into a private psychiatric clinic. Waters makes this medical thread plausible by having it reported by Faraday himself and by other doctors reporting on Roderick’s progress once he’s been locked up. This is their truth, so of course it sounds as feasible as Roderick’s confession in the dispensary. (He makes it clear that he’s talking to Faraday as others would talk to a priest.)

Of course the doctors must be right. But… but but but. During the fire Roderick is discovered practically comatose from drink on his bed – and there are five or six fires, all started separately. (Caroline, handily, used to be a fire-warden – so she should know.) And what about the cinders from Roderick’s hair, in rolled-up newspaper, that spontaneously combust? Roderick must have lit it with the matches discovered nearby, mustn’t he? Waters, in other words, has set up two parallel realities and at this point, less than half-way through, we have no idea which one is going to hold sway. Roderick is now in hospital, convinced that the evil influence is locked inside him, and that he mustn’t be allowed to roam free. (He insists on being locked up in his room whenever unsupervised.)

Meanwhile I’m trying to decide whether, somehow, Waters is using the idea of demonic possession as a metaphor. The house is threatened from every direction: every room is dankly cold, with damaged fittings and peeling wallpaper; we’ve seen Mrs Ayres mourning the near-destruction of all her photographs through the ravages of damp (what is it with photographs in this novel?); and, against his will, Roderick has been selling land off in huge swathes – even some of the beautiful parkland visible from the house is to be used in the post-war council-housing boom. The new order is squeezing out the old and, if this house really is a character, it doesn’t like what’s going on.

But then, neither does Roderick. At dinner on the evening before the fire he jokes, unfunnily, about incursions by the lower orders with ladders and cutlasses – and, alone with Faraday, singles him out with particular venom: ‘Who are you?’ At a metaphorical level he really is possessed by the spirit of the house, at bay and desperate to fight back. But if Waters edging the metaphor into something more literal, we’re not sure about it yet.

24 July
Chapters 8-9
Waters anchors everything firmly in recognisable reality for another chapter and a half. In the long Chapter 8 she gives a lot of space to the radical agenda of the Atlee government: the Welfare State, the need for what we now call social housing – and to the extraordinary differences in perspective between people at different ends of the social scale. At one point she has Caroline and Faraday down with the builders, looking up to the big house. It looks naked, and Caroline tells him that living there is beginning to feel like one of those dreams in which you find yourself undressed. (It isn’t the only time when the house is described in almost human terms. I’ll get back to that.) She is dismissive of the foundations they can see, can’t imagine how anyone could want to live in such tiny boxes. Faraday, thinking of the squalor some of his patients have to live in, is irritated by her lack of imagination.

(I was reminded of another novel featuring the post-war dream of better housing, this time presented entirely from the workers’ perspective: Melvyn Bragg’s Soldier’s Return. Faraday is cast from the same sort of mould as Bragg’s hero, He even thinks about what it would have been like not to have left his working class roots, like the builder he meets who he used to know – and I began to wonder whether Waters’ background is like Bragg’s: who else is interested in such an idea these days?)

Later in the chapter Waters stays with the social concerns and motives of these real-sounding adults, during the long set piece of the hospital dance. Faraday takes Caroline, not thinking for a moment how this might look because he regards the Ayres family as friends. But onlookers aren’t thinking about class differences, they’re thinking about sex and marriage. One old louche spells it out and Faraday is appalled as, suddenly, he realises this is how even his friends are thinking. Well, duh. He’s disgusted by the louche’s smutty talk of the dark journey home – and during the dark journey home he realises Caroline seems ready for him to make a move. Waters’ presentation of the way Caroline’s fairly open move towards him mutates into a kind of embarrassed withdrawal is completely convincing. We could be in a different novel from the one in which strange goings-on seem to be almost expected by the characters…. Maybe Waters wants to convince us of the reality of the world they all inhabit in order to make the weird stuff appear all the more striking. Maybe.

Because, reader, just when we’re beginning to wonder if we’ve finished with all the weirdness – it comes again. In Chapter 9, we’ve been getting the kind of realistically portrayed awkwardness you’d expect, and Faraday finds he’s too busy with work to pay many visits. When he does finally go there, Mrs A realises there’s something going on and wants to leave them to it. But there’s nothing to leave them to, and soon he’s away at a conference in London for a fortnight. And while he’s away…

… they open up the fateful saloon. It’s suffering from water-damage, and they begin a clean-up. But what’s this near the spot where the dog bit the girl? Some marks on the paintwork – no, sort of under the paintwork – like a smudge…. But it’s not scorch-marks this time, it’s the letter ‘S’, repeatedly scribbled as though by a child. That horrid little girl, they think. Idiots. Later: tapping, or knocking, vague at first, then easily traceable to specific places. And where those places are, more ‘S’s, ‘Su’, Suki’…. Something else we’ve been vaguely aware of almost from the start of the novel: Mrs Ayres is never surprised by any of it. By the end of Chapter 9 she’s more or less accepting that the house isn’t letting her forget about her daughter, the one who died before she had Caroline: Susan. Suki. And at last, we know where we are. Faraday offers his explanations – thinning paint revealing 30-year-old scribbles, that sort of thing – and we say, forget it. We’re over two-thirds of the way through this novel now, and it’s time to get down to business. Isn’t it?

To be frank, I’m wondering to what extent Waters is using the gimmick of the supernatural story to keep us reading the literary/historical aspects of this novel which make up 80-plus per cent of it so far. I like both aspects, and I like the way Waters is blurring the boundaries between the metaphorical presentation of the house as an entity with some kind of spiritual essence – a kind of pathetic fallacy – and the idea she’s put into the mouth of Mrs Ayres that somehow the house won’t let her forget. But… the conjuring trick isn’t quite succeeding for me yet, because the supernatural bits seem bolted on. Hmm…. There’s a long way to go yet, in all this novel’s threads: at the end of Chapter 9, choosing to down-play the supernatural stuff he’s been hearing about, Faraday decides to have another go with Caroline. She seems, despite something like a 15-year age difference, to be properly ready this time. Fine. But if they marry, will he be sucked into the house’s grim influence in the way its current residents are? And what will that mean on a metaphorical level? The cutlass-wielding pirates come on board only to be mesmerised? As if I know.

26 July
Chapters 10-12
Hmm. What I’ve been fearing for some chapters now appears to be happening. I’m not talking about the patter of tiny ghostly feet, although they’ve been heard by another one of Waters’ unreliable witnesses, Mrs Ayres this time…. I mean the painfully slow, but inevitable, blurring of the boundaries between Dr Rational’s world-view and the strange realities of the big house. For a long time Faraday’s refusal to shift an inch from his scientific/psychological interpretation of events makes him appear more and more obtuse. It takes almost two solid chapters of pure M R James before, in a whiskey-assisted confession to another doctor, he admits there may be more to it than he’s been suggesting. It’s like a child with a broken arm, he says: you set it and send him on his way. But what if he comes back with cracked ribs? And some other fracture not long after? You might start putting two and two together. Well duh.

This comes after a series of textbook weird stuff – phantom telephone calls, phantom ringing of the servants’ bells and, most disturbing, phantom whistles and breathing down the speaking-tube from the nursery – followed quickly by Mrs A’s ghostly child-in-the-nursery story. It’s as convincingly presented as Roderick’s was, nearly half a novel ago – and, at first, Faraday responds in exactly the same way. As far as he’s concerned he’s dealing with another nutter. It’s at this point I became frustrated. How obtuse is Waters going to make this man? By the time it’s beginning to dawn on him that, shucks, it is a little strange that all those little things – six or seven separate inexplicable small-scale events, plus the two hauntings – should all have come together over a few months I’d lost all patience with him. Mass hysteria, obviously, he wants to tell himself – but when he runs this possibility past a colleague, the other man prefers to tell anecdotes of inexplicable things he’s come across in his own life. Maybe there really is something…? (Yawn.)

It’s after this that we start to get a kind of battle of the explanations that struck me as simply tiresome. Is it the force of the stress inside people’s minds that is becoming somehow externalised? Is Roderick somehow projecting his animosity towards the house by a kind of psychic remote control? Are the tappings and voices really Mrs A’s imagination made real? (This would be like Mrs Bartholomew’s in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, I thought – a novel written 50 years before this one.) Caroline is convinced that the house is homing in on its inhabitants’ weak points: Roderick’s losing battle with the finances in his room, Caroline’s fondness for the dog, Mrs Ayres’ near-obsession with her dead daughter. I liked this idea better than the kind of spooky whodunnit these chapters sometimes become: in turn, somebody or other suspects each family member – plus Betty the maid and Faraday himself – of somehow initiating a kind of malevolent force.

But all the spookiness so far and most of the guesswork surrounding it are well-trodden literary territory. As though to forestall such criticism, Waters has Caroline bring out the Victorian Book of Spookiness (or whatever) to back up some faux-scientific interpretations. Faraday, at this point, still can’t believe it and is shocked that his sort-of fiancée could believe such nonsense. If Waters’ motive in all this is to try to get us to think about what it would be like, in our real lives, to be confronted by this sort of preternatural strangeness, well… it doesn’t work. Faraday is a character in a novel, and we are never going to forget that. The book is so full of familiar tropes that none of the events seem surprising to us. We’re only interested in how spooky Waters can make them, and Faraday’s insistence on rational explanations, in the face of so much contrary evidence, seems a bit stupid.

But I’m repeating myself. In Chapter 12 a really Big Thing happens. Faraday goes for a wintry walk with Mrs Ayres, and she lets him know that Susan is always with her. That’s not the big thing, and nor are the bloody scratches that suddenly appear on her chest, inside her clothes. (How on earth did she manage that, wonders Dr Rational.) Quick, off to the clinic, he decides, and Caroline rationalises her qualms, sort of, by imagining that the house is picking them off one by one. But she insists on waiting until the next day for her mother to be committed, when it can be done properly. She’ll be able to look after her mother for one night.

No she won’t. Faraday gets an emergency call to the house next morning, but it takes him a long time to tell us that the old woman has hanged herself. Caroline had left her alone for just a moment in the small hours, to get her cigarettes from her own room across the corridor. She could still see into her mother’s room – until she fell asleep. Next morning: mother’s door locked from inside, no response to shouts…. Outside? No, but the key is, apparently having been thrown from the window – and there she is, blocking the door, dead. Is it a relief? Of course not – but, well, the house does seem quiet now. In a good way.

Yeh, sure. There’s a long way to go yet, even if Waters, no doubt temporarily, has turned the dial to ‘normal’ for the time being. We get a funeral, and we get the reactions of the extended family to the dilapidation of the hall in general and the moral dilapidation of Caroline in particular: she’s engaged to a doctor, for goodness’ sake.

27 July
Chapters 13-15: the end
Last time, I was complaining about the idea of a spooky whodunnit but, now I’ve realised that’s exactly what it is, I’m happy about it. And Waters had me completely fooled. She’s stolen one of Philip K Dick’s neatest tricks and played it on us: in several of his stories, an investigating detective (or whoever) turns out to be the perpetrator – but, reader, he genuinely has never known. For instance in one story, he’s trying to find the android programmed to set off a nuclear explosion – only for us to find out that unknown to himself, he isn’t human and he’s the one with the ticking bomb inside him.

In The Little Stranger Waters’ narrator is in exactly this position: all along, the malevolent force is coming from the person who, at a conscious level, is most opposed to the idea, the one trying to explain everything rationally. In other words, Faraday’s pig-headed stubbornness is a red herring. He’s not trying to pull the wool over our eyes, because, even when the evidence is staring him in the face (literally, in the last sentence of the novel), he doesn’t understand that the force that wanted the family out is – himself. The little stranger is there in the very first chapter: he loves the house and can’t have even the tiniest bit of it. And then he can. Each member of the family is picked off, one by one – just as Caroline realised – until only one is left. And he’s going to marry her. Soon, as he says, they’ll be having breakfast in bed together there.

After everyone has left Mrs Ayres’ funeral, Faraday seems almost overbearing in his insistence on naming the wedding day. Caroline is tired – Waters has her repeat the word about half-a-dozen times in a short conversation – and she lets him choose a day six weeks hence. In the days and weeks following this, she declines into a near-depression. Faraday ignores this, books the honeymoon hotel, buys her a wedding dress and ring…. If it all seems bonkers, well, we haven’t seen anything yet. Two weeks before the day he takes the dress and ring to her – and she says she’s not going to marry him after all. To any reader, it’s clear that what she tells him is true: she’s always liked him, hugely appreciates what he’s done, but there’s no love there. We remember that inauspicious moment in the car on the way home from the dance, and it’s clear she’s simply been going along with what he wants.

He goes almost mad. His behaviour over the next few days is one of complete denial of all the perfectly sensible things she’s told him. At different points he throws the ring with the intention of hitting her, attempts to persuade her solicitor to rescind the power of attorney she has when he hears she’s going to sell the house, accuses her of getting exactly what she’s always wanted – the cheek of it…! – and contemplates having her committed. It seems uncharacteristic, not at all like the thoughtful, generous-minded country doctor we’ve spent time with for nearly a year. I wondered whether, at this late stage, Waters was going to take the story somewhere entirely new…. But, apparently, she doesn’t. He calms down after several days of this, becomes, eventually, resigned to the twin facts that he will never marry Caroline and that the house will be sold.

On the night that would have been their wedding night, he seems to be back entirely inside the world of the normal. He has to get an itinerant worker to hospital in the middle of the night, finds himself driving home along country lanes near the house. And we get the biggest clue so far about his influence. He parks in the spot where he parked the car with Caroline on that other night, falls asleep, sort of, and imagines himself making his way to the house. It’s a sort of projection of his mind, and it doesn’t really work for him. He wakes up cold and wretched. And, reader, next day he hears that Caroline has fallen to her death.

There’s all the business of the normal world that you’d expect: post-mortem examination, funeral, inquest. Betty testifies that there was always ‘something’ in the house. She also adds a new detail to what Faraday knows of the death: before her fall, Caroline had sounded horrified as she spoke the single word ‘You’ on the landing. Gulp. Then Faraday confirms that, yes, Caroline believed there was something malevolent in the house and, yes, he’d support a verdict of suicide while the balance of her mind was impaired. And that’s that.

Except there’s a short final chapter. Three years have passed, and he’s doing quite well under the new health service. He’s popular, people ask for him because he knows how to talk to them. Meanwhile, nobody has bought the big house – but he still has a key and often lets himself in. Stripped of carpets and furniture it looks, he thinks, as it must when first built. This is how the architect must have visualised it. Does he believe in a malevolent force? How can he? Except sometimes he almost catches a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye – but if ever he sees anything properly it’s a reflection. All he can see is himself.

Of course. We’ve known about the key all along – he’s told us that he’s kept it on his key-ring even after Caroline’s final rejection – so… while he was dreaming of being thwarted by the darkness of the hall, in fact the darkness was only a veil inside his own mind. He had no problem reaching the hall in the bright moonlight, letting himself in and, well, we know the rest. But he doesn’t: the malevolence that motivates him doesn’t need him to know. (He even thinks the false alibi he gives – that he was at the hospital all night – is accidental. He means to put his colleague right on this, but the moment passes.)

So, what about all my earlier speculations? I’m sort of right about the M R James aspects. Like the supernatural presence in ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you…’ this one takes the form that will affect its victims most. Caroline was right about that, as about so many things, but she hadn’t realised it also applied to Faraday any more than he did himself – and any more than I did. It’s Roderick who senses the real menace in him. Mistakenly, he thinks it’s to do with class; they both do. His dislike comes across as rampant snobbery, mixed up with the unease verging on terror being felt by the upper classes under the only socialist government Britain has ever had.

But Roderick is spot-on in his image of the pirates invading: Faraday is no socialist, he’s possessive and materialistic. He wants ‘Hundreds’ for himself, and his force-field (or whatever) and his medical background turn out to be a perfect combination. The malevolence stirs things up, and Faraday is ready with his convenient diagnoses. The fates of the three family members follow a pattern: Roderick is made completely mad – but it isn’t so clear with Mrs Ayres, and she dies before Faraday has to test it. He’s got no chance with Caroline, and only extreme measures will be good enough. And all the time, at a conscious level, the perpetrator doesn’t even know it’s happening. It’s one of the neatest twists I can ever remember, because all the information is staring us in the face from the very start. But, like the Anthony Perkins character at the end of Psycho, he has no reason to reproach himself. He didn’t do anything.

28 July
Postscript
As I was coming to the end of writing this it struck me that Faraday ends up being very like Cleave, the more frankly dodgy psychiatrist narrator of Patrick McGrath’s Asylum. This is what I wrote about the end of that novel in 2008:

‘End of story. Except… Peter has the last word, and reveals perhaps more about himself than he intended. He’s lost Stella, he knows that – but, somehow, not entirely. In the last sentences of the novel there’s a twist, in at least two senses of that word. He describes how he has acquired the drawings Edgar made of Stella – and the sculpted head he’d re-worked so much it had become shrunk, as he tells us, to the size of his own hand. ‘I get it out over the course of the day, and admire it. So you see I do still have my Stella after all. And I still, of course, have him.’

That’s class: in his own eyes he’s become the puppeteer, the all-controlling god at the centre of his own world (’the size of my hand’ gets it perfectly). The irony, of course, is that the all-seeing narrator of this tale of obsession doesn’t recognise that alongside Stella’s story he’s revealed his own fixation in all its textbook stages. Maybe an asylum’s the best place for him, like the Anthony Perkins character at the end of Psycho. Look how controlled he is, just look.’

With the alteration of a few small details, these paragraphs could apply to Faraday perfectly.

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