Its blurbs claim that the excellent novel The Little Stranger is haunted by the spirits of Edgar Allen Poe and Henry James. I would say that author Sarah Waters, so successful in channeling Dickens’ and Wilkie Collins’ Victorian London in Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, took on, with this gothic-tinged novel set after World War II, the ghosts of Daphne du Maurier and EM Forster. I say Forster because the narrator is a middle-aged male doctor, hyper-conscious of his class (lower), status (wobbly) and charm/income (both inadequate), and Du Maurier for the creepy atmospherics and the setting, which though it is Warwickshire, might as well be bleak moors, all impassable muddy lanes, tumble-down farms and dull villages. And for those of you who have read Waters’s previous novels, this one is as chaste as a book actually written in 1948; the language is as restrained as the love-making.
It seems that most of the novel takes place in the winter, though it begins innocently enough in summer (that alone should alert connoisseurs of these kinds of chillers—when was it ever hot in England?) as our aforementioned, slowly social-climbing Dr. Faraday encounters the aristocratic Ayres family and their house, Hundreds Hall. As surely as Faraday is rising in society, Hundreds and its family deteriorate. Mayhem, decay, madness, hysteria and unrequited longing are only the beginning as the bleak winter sets in and the family fails one test after another thrown at them by fate (or is it the house itself?).
Sarah Waters manages once again to re-create an era with memorable characters who help articulate the concerns of an earlier time and thereby serve to illuminate our own. That she does it with such a gripping, page-turning, creepy story is a little bit of black magic.
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead, trade paperback, $16). Available at Vroman’s and other bookstores around town.