Say Hello to My Little Stranger

(This essay concerns the mechanics of revelation. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

The Little Stranger

little-stranger.jpgThe narrator of The Little Stranger would tell you that this tale is about grave misfortune, not a haunted house.

His name is Dr. Faraday, and in Sarah Waters’ agonizingly patient gothic novel set in post-World War II Britain, he has a dismissal available for any odd happening at Hundreds Hall. You’re tired. It’s an old house. Those must have been there for years. He seems the opposite of the classic unreliable narrator — he’s too reliable, and at points in the book he so tediously rules out the supernatural that you want some apparition to shove a hot poker up his ass.

If this sounds like a criticism, it’s a mild one, as this is surely the effect that Waters sought, anatomical specificity aside. Faraday is so sane and logical that he has no credibility in the context of this story; rational explanations do not make for good horror fiction, and that’s the baggage that readers bring to the book. His refusal to accept the supernatural as even possible is the novel’s primary source of tension, and in the end is critical to its wickedly satisfying ending.

That finale is a tricky thing, and I’m afraid that some readers mistake subtlety for ambiguity or inconclusiveness; Waters foreshadows heavily, but some people remain clueless — a huge irony given the text. At its core, The Little Stranger is about an oblivious man — one who doesn’t understand what’s right in front of him. Or inside him.

As a storyteller, Faraday reveals more than he realizes. The book begins:

“I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old.”

sarah-waters.jpgThis is a casual, natural opening — dull but sensible, a perfect match for the source of the words. Yet behind the author (Faraday) is the author (Waters), and in the literary context (rather than the journal-y context of the doctor), the author is laying her groundwork.

In that opening chapter, the middle-aged Faraday recounts from an adult perspective his feelings as a child, injecting his younger self with far more self-awareness than we might expect from such a wee lad:

“It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it — or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamored of.”

And so he pries a plaster decoration from the wall — a beautifully articulated, forward-looking metaphor in which Waters hints at the damaging unintended consequences of the doctor’s desire:

“I’m afraid the acorn gave at last, though less cleanly than I’d been expecting ... .”

The story proper finds Faraday — three decades later — treating a homesick servant at the now-crumbling Hundreds and becoming the physician to the Hundreds’ owners: the widow Mrs. Ayers, homely elder daughter Caroline, and war-injured son Roderick. A dog bites a little girl, Roderick begins to unravel, a fire breaks out at Hundreds, and Faraday starts a courtship with Caroline — a pursuit that seemed inevitable from the outset based on the doctor’s thorough descriptions of such an unvarnished woman. Beyond that, suffice it to say that if Hundreds isn’t haunted, its inhabitants are surely cursed.

One aspect of the brilliance of The Little Stranger is the suspense created by the withholding of the apparently supernatural. The book’s nearly 500 pages feature only a handful of “incidents,” and they are all secondhand accounts filtered through Faraday. Some — cryptic scribbles on the wall — are so minor they’re nearly laughable, but they gain weight through empathy; we see how upset they make the inhabitants of Hundreds, and the reader relates to the Ayers family more than the doctor, simply because we need there to be something paranormal at work.

Other curiosities are deeply unsettling because they conform to nothing. The apparent burn marks in Roderick’s bedroom — and his account of what happened in that room the night the child was bitten — are chilling for being so odd.

Faraday, when talking to those who have had a fright, does his best to convince them that they were seeing things. Yet — despite an aggressive skepticism — he doesn’t discredit them in his writing, instead reproducing their stories with care and fidelity.

The narration of these events actually seems too detailed, with the authenticity of experience. But this, too, is Waters at work: The doctor tells the tales vividly because some part of him was there.

On this issue, the novel is playful but not actually ambiguous; there is a plain difference between what Faraday wants to convey in his account and what he’s actually saying. He comes perilously close to understanding who he is and what he’s done, but he always stops just short:

“Riddell called me to the stand, and I rose and took my place, with a feeling almost of dread — almost as if this were some sort of criminal trial, with myself as the accused.”

He’s even jokingly confronted with his role, when Faraday suggests to Caroline that one of the servants is responsible:

“‘You’ve only had trouble, haven’t you, since she’s been in the house?’

“She made a gesture of impatience, dismissing the idea.

“‘You might as well say we’ve only had trouble since you’ve been in it.’”

And The Little Stranger closes with a lovely passage whose double meaning borders on comic. Faraday, walking through the empty Hundreds, has no idea how close he is to truth:

“Every so often I’ll sense a presence, or catch a movement at the corner of my eye, and my heart will give a jolt of fear and expectation: I’ll imagine that the secret is about to be revealed to me at last; that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognize it, as she did.

“If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed — realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window pane, and that thew face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.”

What’s missing here for some readers, apparently, is a moment of clarity — the realization by Faraday that he was the cause of all this trouble.

But what is gained from that, except for readers who miss myriad obvious hints?

One ancestor of The Little Stranger is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice,” whose narrator commits a terrible crime while in a spell not unlike Faraday experiences near the end of Waters’ book. The novel is supernatural and the short story is not, yet the works share a motif of possessiveness.

But the reveals are handled differently, and the contrast is instructive.

In Poe’s story, for one, the teller’s sense of guilt and horror is acute, even before his actions are known:

“I found myself sitting in the library, and again sitting there alone. It seemed that I had newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream. I knew that it was now midnight, and I was well aware, that since the setting of the sun, Berenice had been interred. But of that dreary period which intervened I had no positive, at least no definite comprehension. Yet its memory was replete with horror — horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. I strived to decypher them, but in vain; while ever and anon, like the spirit of a departed sound, the shrill and piercing shriek of a female voice seemed to be ringing in my ears. I had done a deed — what was it? I asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering echoes of the chamber answered me, — ‘what was it?’”

And Poe does use an epiphany, as the reader and narrator together learn of amateur tooth extraction:

“On the table beside me burned a lamp, and near it lay a little box. ...

“With a shriek I bounded to the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and in my tremor, it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with 32 small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.”

The Little Stranger couldn’t survive such an approach. First, the what of Faraday’s deeds is not nearly so dramatic or revolting. Second, as the book nears its end, the truth should be at least suspected by all but the most careless reader.

Most importantly, a more-explicit resolution to the mystery would be incongruous with Faraday, whose self-ignorance through adherence to science is essential: It gives him license to continue to harm, free of conscience.

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