Monday, September 21, 2009

The Fun Of The Shudder

This appeared in The Hindustan Times on Saturday


M.R. James, doyen of the English ghost story, once summed up his art by saying that the most valuable ingredients were the atmosphere and the well-managed crescendo. He continued, “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

That, more or less, is the manner in which Sarah Waters progresses her fifth novel, The Little Stranger, with a little help along the way from another James – the one who wrote The Turn of the Screw.

This, then, is an enjoyably eerie and well-constructed novel designed to bring about the sensation that Edith Wharton called “the fun of the shudder”. It is, however, more than just a device to send an ice-cube down the spine: it also examines shifting class distinctions in England during the period immediately after World War Two.

The tale begins in 1949 when Dr Faraday, a physician in rural Warwickshire, is summoned to the aid of a young maid working in Hundreds Hall, a Georgian mansion owned by the Ayres family for generations. Dr Faraday’s own mother used to work there as a maid, and the doctor was once vouchsafed a glimpse of its gorgeous interiors when, as a boy, he was smuggled inside after a fete on the grounds.

Now, however, the establishment has gone to seed and the surviving members of the Ayres family – Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick and daughter Caroline – struggle to keep it, and themselves, afloat. The doctor becomes a regular visitor to Hundreds Hall, at first to treat Roderick for his war injuries and then because of a growing closeness to Caroline.

Waters carefully delineates the ruined interiors of the once-exquisite mansion; fittingly so, as it’s a protagonist in its own right. Soon, the gloomy corridors, decrepit rooms and dilapidated fittings play host to inexplicable scorch marks, bell-ringing, scribbling on walls, fires and things that go bump on foggy winter nights. Brideshead Revisited, this is not.

Dr Faraday, being a man of science, tries to assure the Ayres family that there are rational explanations for these occurrences, but it’s when they become more frequent – and much more malign – that they test the weaknesses of each one of the hall’s inhabitants.

As with Waters’ earlier work, The Little Stranger is painstakingly plotted and paced; yet, the twists and turns never feel contrived and straitjacketed. In large part, this is due to the first-person narration of Dr Faraday and the growing realisation that this conservative, repressed country doctor’s account isn’t quite reliable.

The novel is rendered more satisfying by Waters’ depiction of the people and surroundings during the historical period in which the novel is based, including her treatment of class in a changing Britain. At one point, Dr Faraday unburdens himself to a colleague: “It's as if -- well, as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family”. The fellow doctor replies: “It's called a Labour government.”

All too often, the denouement of a ghost story suffers by overplaying its hand. Here, however, Waters’ touch remains as assured as ever, with the result that even after the last page is read, the miasmic goings-on at The Hundreds remain a palpable presence. Pick it up, and you’ll leave the lights on.

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