I swore I’d never read another ghost story. Since 9/11, actually, I notice that I only read realistic fiction. Fantasy no longer interests me. And I certainly don’t have time to be reading novels that are nearly 500 pages long. I don’t have time to plow through 400 pages and then discover myself facing a stupid ending. Poor endings are common. I’m looking for books that are good all the way through. I have a table piled high with advances, and my job is to find enough short, realistic novels that are good all the way through to review and discuss in book clubs. Unfortunately, the best-written advance on my table is nearly 500 pages long. And a ghost story.
I’ve never read Sarah Waters before. I’ve listened to bookstore customers rave about The Night Watch and Fingersmith, I’ve listened to lesbians cooing over Tipping the Velvet, but her novels are long and historical, a time investment, an undertaking. Nevertheless, her new novel is a Victorian ghost story. Gulp. If it’s one genre I have a personal weakness for, it’s the classic British ghost story. The Christmas ghost story was the model for my own three published novels, all of which are ghost stories.
For over three years, during the writing of those novels, all I read were ghost stories. All the classics, M. R. James and Henry James, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and all their numerous contemporaries. I know the genre. I love the genre. And so does Sarah Waters. Let me put my bookmark in place here and try, for just a moment, to describe her exhilarating new novel, The Little Stranger.
For the first ninety pages she sets her stage. We’re in a little town in England after World War Two. Hundreds Hall is in disrepair and swiftly getting worse. The house’s young master, Roderick, badly scarred during the war, broods and keeps to himself, walks with a limp. His sister, the sincere, mannish Caroline, reaches out to the good local Dr Faraday, who is telling the story, to help their nervous maid Betty, and along with the doctor the reader is drawn into the dark hallways and vacant, locked rooms of Hundreds Hall. When city folk move into the big house next door, Mrs Ayre, the mother of Roderick and Caroline, throws a party in their honor. Roderick won’t come down for the party. What’s wrong with Roderick? The maid goes up. His mother goes up. He’ll be down soon, they assure us, but he doesn’t come down. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
You don’t see it coming. It’s not a ghost. What happens is completely unexpected. And horrifying. And now, sixty pages farther, I’m seeing the whole story of that party told over again from a different point of view, and it’s even creepier. Sarah Waters has avoided clichés assiduously, brought all of her characters warmly to life, and now I’m watching poor Roderick go into a meltdown as he finally decides to confide in the good Dr Faraday and tell him what the hell is happening at Hundreds Hall. I’m a little nervous about what he’s going to say. That’s why I decided to write this blog. I needed a break. This book is creeping me out.