Haunted houses always seemed particularly creepy to me because of the way they invert the way home ought to feel. In fact, the German word for uncanny is unheimlich, which can be literally translated as un-home-like. Homes should be warm, comfortable, full of memories of family life, and welcoming. A haunted house is uncanny because nothing is quite right. There might be family memories, but they are usually tainted somehow. The comfort has vanished and they are almost universally cold. Their outward features tend to keep people away. This is certainly the case in Sarah Water’s unsettling novel, The Little Stranger.
Our narrator, Dr. Faraday, provides an outsider’s perspective to life in the no-longer-stately home, Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire. Faraday has childhood memories of what life was like at Hundreds Hall when it was in its heyday, so it’s a shock to him how far the mighty have fallen. By 1948, roughly when the novel is set, there is no money for repairs and barely any for the two servants left to tend the Ayres family. The story isn’t all that uncommon after World War II when many of the gentry and aristocratic classes could no longer raise the funds to maintain their ancestral piles. What is unusual is what Faraday hears on his return to Hundreds Hall to tend to the maid. She, we learn, has faked an illness to try and get sent home. The maid finds the house unbearably depressed and not right. Faraday soothes her fears, rationalizing them all away.
Faraday makes a habit of rationalizing away the strange things that start to happen at Hundreds Hall. His care of the maid turns out to be the beginning of an odd sort of friendship. Because he’s one of the few visitors the Ayres’ family gets, they begin to confide in him. The only son, a wounded World War II veteran, worries incessantly about how the family can ever make enough money to turn the estate around. The mother grows a bit vaguer as time goes on, though she tries to keep calm and carry on. Faraday becomes closest to Caroline, the daughter of the family, who is blunt yet caring.
As The Little Stranger starts to slowly morph into a horror novel, with inexplicable “pranks” occurring all over the Hall, I started to wonder who was the bigger threat: whatever is playing with the Ayres family…or the good Dr. Faraday himself. The stories Faraday hears about the hauntings are chilling enough. There are fires, strange noises, doors that lock and can’t be opened, and more. But Dr. Faraday is always there to try and explain things away. He tells the former soldier with PTSD, the aged widow, and Caroline that they’re tired, under pressure. When he talks over his “cases” with his colleagues, Faraday ends up wondering whether some form of hysteria is to blame. The members of the Ayres family just want someone to believe them. Faraday wants to cure them and, perhaps, become master of Hundreds Hall himself. In the end, I was more upset by Faraday than any potential supernatural presence.
The Little Stranger is more than a little strange itself. It lured me in with the promise of a haunted house. While it delivered and I got the Halloween reading experience I was hoping for with The House of the Seven Gables, I was left with a lot of questions about who the real villain was, what really happened to the Ayreses when Faraday wasn’t around the witness the weird behavior at the Hall, how people who may have mental illnesses should be diagnosed and treated, and who among the characters could be believed. I think The Little Stranger would be a terrific book for a book group because there are so many ways it could be interpreted, all depending on who one decides to trust. A book group could have hours of fun debating just what the hell it all meant.