Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (2009) wears its Gothic heritage proudly but wryly. The first-person narrator, Dr. Faraday, plays the role normally allotted to doctors--but never truly has a skeptic's conversion. As the reader slowly realizes, Faraday suffers from a classic case of unreliability, putting him in a Gothic line of descent that stretches from Henry James' nameless governess to Patrick McGrath's twisted speakers. (The Little Stranger's final image seems to have been inspired by The Turn of the Screw.) Faraday's attraction to Hundreds, the novel's resident haunted hause, bears an interesting resemblance to Eleanor's growing fascination with Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House. And the Ayres family, who own Hundreds, apparently suffer from the sort of curse familiar to anyone who has spent late nights poring over creepy tales of macabre hauntings. But...why, exactly?
One of the novel's most interesting twists on the Gothic, in fact, is that the haunting cannot be explained or solved by any of the usual methods. Mrs. Ayres and her daughter Caroline speculate that the house might be haunted by Susan, the oldest daughter, who died when still a child; however, there's no reason for Susan to be harassing her relatives, no injustice that needs to be set right or important act left undone. There's no unspeakable evil lurking in the family's relatively mediocre past. Moreover, until the main action begins, the house has shown itself to be resolutely unhaunted. In other words, the past is at best a red herring; history provides no clues. One of the Gothic's main tropes thus goes sailing out the window: instead of exploding violently into the present, the past in The Little Stranger stays quietly put. This novel's dead don't move in their sleep, let alone walk.
As several reviewers have already pointed out, the Ayres family bears the real burden of pastness in this novel. Roderick, the son, not only suffers from injuries incurred while fighting in WWII, but also from the onerous weight of maintaining Hundreds on zero cash. Mrs. Ayres tries to maintain a facade of elegant ladyhood in the face of her many disappointments. And Caroline, like Roderick, shows no sign of getting married anytime soon; the family name is clearly in danger, along with the estate. One of Faraday's colleagues opines that "history" destroyed Hundreds and that "the Ayreses, unable to advance with the times, simply opted for retreat--for suicide, and madness" (463). If we accept this reading, then the family implodes because they are the undead--England's own upper-class Gothic ghosts, attempting to haunt the present but defeated by the march of time and technology. From this perspective, The Little Stranger is a Poe-esque "Fall of the House of Ayres" (without anyone being buried alive, but you know what I mean). But while the novel offers this very impersonal reading of "history"--an irresistible agency apparently mowing down every landed family in its path--it also suggests that something more complex, and more immediate, may be at work.
And now for a word from our unreliable narrator. As this may lead readers to places they don't want to go, I'll put the rest of this post below the fold.
The colleague who suggests that the family is being done in by history also theorizes that the house could be haunted by someone's unconscious, a "dream-self" that might "detach itself, cross space, become visible to others" (352). Faraday has already suspected that Roderick may have injured himself, and to the extent that he's even willing to consider his colleague's hypothesis, he assumes that the perpetrator must be within the household. But as the novel's title suggests, the house is haunted by a stranger...and who stranger than Faraday? I've already mentioned the links between this novel and The Turn of the Screw, but the connection can be pushed further: Faraday both inverts and doubles the governess. James' governess insists on seeing herself within Gothic and romance plots (including, very obviously, Jane Eyre's plot); once she learns that Quint is dead, she enthusiastically embraces the role of Gothic heroine. Her opinions of both the children and the housekeeper swing about wildly, depending on whether or not they're agreeing with her at the time. And, of course, it's easy enough to trace all of the novel's events--Miles' death included--back to her. By contrast, Faraday doggedly sticks to his rationalist guns until just about the end of the novel, going so far to suspect Caroline of harming her mother (372). Far from seeing himself as a hero, Faraday spends much of his time gloomily contemplating his lack of hair, his lack of attractions, his lack of polite chitchat, his lack of proper evening wear, and, of course, his lack of class standing. Bemoaning his likely future when the NHS kicks in, Faraday complains to a colleague that "I'm not grand enough for the gentry--not grand enough for working people, come to that" (33). Alienated from his working-class origins but not truly part of the middle class--and certainly not the upper class--Faraday sits permanently on the outside, a marginal observer.
His Cinderella story, then, is an attempt to live out the governess' romance fantasy--and yet it all goes wildly astray. To begin with, while Faraday consciously denies that he has any heroic ambitions, he takes advantage of every misfortune befalling the Ayres clan to assert his professional power: he sews up the little girl's face, treats Roderick's leg, has Roderick hospitalized, and tries to have Mrs. Ayres hospitalized. Everything that happens appears to further his relationship with Caroline...or, rather, with Hundreds, courtesy of Caroline. As she bluntly inquires, "Do you, really [want me]? [...] Or is it the house you want?" (417). Faraday's desire for Hundreds began in childhood, when he stole an acorn from a plaster decoration. His mother burns it to a "blackened nub" (4), and the black marks that scar the walls as the hauntings progress echo this destruction of his prize. Indeed, the hauntings only begin once Faraday starts associating with the Ayreses; his obsession with the house seems to derive from a combination of class warfare (he simultaneously resents them and longs for their lost lifestyle) and childhood fantasy (his youthful glimpse of Hundreds is positively utopian). But while courting Caroline briefly lets Faraday live the Cinderella-like fantasy that James' governess can only imagine, the execution is hardly idyllic. A seduction scene goes horribly haywire, stopping just short of rape; understandably, after they're engaged, Caroline never demonstrates much enthusiasm about the prospect of actually marrying Faraday. When she jilts him, he turns into a stalker...and finally, into something that may be much worse. (Another parallel to the governess?) None of this, however, allows Faraday to realize his fantasy, even once everyone is out of the way. Although he may have dreamed that Hundreds would somehow resolve his alienation, he is nevertheless left contemplating his face in a broken window, unable to perceive his own haunting presence within the household...