Forbidden Tomes: THE LITTLE STRANGER by SARAH WATERS

The haunted house plot has been done to death (no pun intended), in a variety of different mediums. And yet, we are drawn to it consistently, always trying to find a new way to spin the tropes. Many failed examples show how difficult a task this really is – but every once in a while, a rare work comes along and uses these tropes to their fullest potential. This is embodied to near-perfection in Sarah Water’s THE LITTLE STRANGER.

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Our cursed domicile comes in the guise of Hundreds Hall, a once-grand mansion that has fallen into decay following the strife of World War II. Waters chooses an idealistic doctor as her protagonist, entering the crumbling shadows of Hundreds at first on business, and soon becoming a friend to the surviving members of the Ayres family. But the Ayres are haunted by more than just dwindling inheritance. As madness and paranoia overtake the already-besieged family, the doctor attempts to keep intact what’s left of Hundred Halls, fighting against a force that wants nothing more than to see it fall.

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“The Little Stranger” sounds like a straight horror novel. It isn’t. Most of the story focuses on the historical drama of the Ayres family, tinged with classic Gothicism (a genre to which Waters pays terrific homage). But, when the ghostly events come up, they’re all the more powerful for the quiet drama that came before. Waters orchestrates the most intricate manifestations, with steadily increasing patterns and ingenious connections to the characters’ minds. Her beautiful Gothic setting of corpse-like Hundreds Hall cements the creepiness with a heavy sepulchral atmosphere. The mounting occurrences are made even scarier by the question of reality versus hallucination – we never truly know if Hundreds is full of ghosts or mere human insanity.

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Waters infuses her ghost story with a sense of decay and loss, which helps to bring it above the typical haunted-house standard – there is a real-world core to the uncanny events flitting on the surface. Hundreds Hall is haunted by ghosts as much as by the long death of a far-off era. Like the best of the genre, echoing especially Henry James, Waters evokes the psychological within the supernatural. It makes the apparitions all the more chilling when they have long-term mental effects on the characters. The psychology of the book gives it a tragic aspect as we watch the destruction of a family who, like the rest of us, is just trying to survive.

Like many Gothic stories, Waters’ tale is a bit bloated with detail and light on action – the reason why a good portion of horror fans have shunned it – but its story and psychological terror are so impactful that the padded scenes are worth sitting through. The novel drips mouldering atmosphere and chilly breath. It’s perfect for nights when the winter wind howls outside, whispering dark prophecies; and a reminder that even decay can come to life.

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