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Posts Tagged ‘The Little Stranger’

When things go bump in the night at my place, it’s usually because a pet or a person has dislodged a stack of books. Just as well. “Haunted condo” doesn’t have the same ring as “haunted house.”

I like my haunted houses old, large and creepy, preferably in Britain, but a Southern mansion will do the trick. The ghosts may or may not be “real,” but someone will think they are. The past will impinge upon the present in unforseen ways. One of my favorite haunted houses is Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, where spooky Mrs. Danvers asks the young narrator if she believes the dead return to watch the living.

So I had high hopes for the decaying Warwickshire mansion known as High Hundreds, the setting for Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I generally like Waters’ books (Fingersmith), and this one was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recommended by Stephen King, who knows something about scaring the daylights out of readers.

But The Little Stranger, in which narrator Dr. Faraday, becomes involved in the diminished lives of the Ayers family — widowed mother, World War II-injured son Roderick, spinster daughter Caroline — is all repressed psychological suspense, owing much to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. A friend who has read neither book found The Little Stranger “a well-written non-story.”  I agree. Hundreds itself is a fascinating haunted house, but the tale is ultimately dispiriting.

Waters’ novel, which came out last year, did send me back to re-read 2007’s  The Minotaur by Barbara Vine, a master of literary suspense whether writing under the Vine pseudonym or as Ruth Rendell.  Here the setting is 1960s Essex and the vine-covered (!) Lydstep Old Hall, home to the seriously dysfunctional Cosway family. The narrator, young Swedish nurse Kerstin, arrives admittedly like a Bronte heroine to be confronted by a selfish matriarch ruling over four daughters and a troubled genius son, John. Kerstin, who is there to help look after the supposedly schizophrenic John, soon decides that drugging John into a zombie-like state isn’t doing him any good. Meanwhile, a dashing, penniless artist has arrived in the neighborhood and doesn’t seem to care which Cosway sister he’ll seduce.

It’s all as complicated as the library labyrinth at the center of the house where John seeks refuge. Vine spins a teasing narrative threaded with clues and leading inexorably to a shocking climax. You know something horrible is bound to happen, but not how or to whom. Disturbing and haunting. 

Open Book: I received The Little Stranger (Penguin) as a Christmas gift and bought a paperback of The Minotaur (Knopf) after first reading a library copy.

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