The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, Riverhead Books, $26.95.
A lot of Advance Reader Copies come through Aunt Agatha’s, but only a few of them find their way to the "maybe to be read" pile. There’s the authors I know and love like Stuart MacBride and Steve Hamilton, and then there’s the relative newcomers who have that ineffable something that makes me want to cull them from the herd. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was one of the latter, but it wasn’t until I saw in Entertainment Weekly that Stephen King had proclaimed it his favorite book of the year and (King’s opinion, I’m afraid, not being sufficient unto itself) learning that it had been short-listed for England’s prestigious Booker prize that I dug it out and actually read it.
The first thing I have to point out about The Little Stranger is that it’s not a mystery, but a ghost story. Traditionally in a mystery (think, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles) a supernatural entity may seem to be responsible for the mayhem, but in the end a human being is behind it all. In a ghost story it’s usually the reverse – I’ll leave the analysis of the current mania for a supporting cast of vampires, ghosts and zombies in novels of all kinds to a more subtle mind.
The other salient feature of the novel is that it’s just that, a novel, and a rather long one at that. To me, almost by definition, scary stories work best as stories, and the great masters of horror like E. A. Poe or M. R. James have almost exclusively used the shorter form. To readers accustomed to the eventful pace of the modern mystery The Little Stranger may seem a little leisurely.
It starts off as a kind of Brideshead Revisited tale of an outsider’s encounter with a venerable English family seat and the eccentric aristocrats within. The mother of the narrator Dr. Faraday had, in fact, been in service at the grand mansion known as "The Hundreds," and when he is first summoned to soothe a spooked maid he is treated as little more than a servant himself. Eventually he comes to know the widow Mrs. Ayers and her two adult children, Roderick and Caroline, as well as some of the troubling things that have been transpiring within the crumbling walls. In a the brave new world of a postwar England that seems haunted by its traditional ways, both the house and the family are undergoing a gradual decay, accompanied by uncanny events that are the result of either insanity or unearthly malevolence.
Gradual is the operative word here, but the slow accumulation of detail makes even the most subtle creepy and romantic developments more effective when they finally do occur. I found the last quarter of the book as gripping and atmospheric as any thriller, its understatement moving in a way that the special effects laden horror productions of today (like King’s) can’t manage. The Little Stranger is somewhat hobbled by the deficiencies – lack of pacing and clear resolution – that the "literary" novelist flaunts as badges of honor, but, all in all, it succeeds as an absorbing and rewarding read for those intrigued by the complex shadows of a good old fashioned ghost story.