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Sarah Waters Spins A Haunting Tale Of Class Conflict

Sarah Waters set out to explore class consciousness — and the power of poltergeists — in her new novel, <em>The Little Stranger.</em>
Sarah Waters set out to explore class consciousness — and the power of poltergeists — in her new novel, The Little Stranger.

One of this season's best-reviewed new novels, The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a ghost story set at a crumbling Warwickshire manor house in postwar England.

Hundreds Hall, the novel's Gothic setting, is haunted — but perhaps not by what you'd expect. Its inhabitants are bedeviled not just by their sinking economic status but also by odd noises, along with peculiar behavior from the family dog.

Waters says she's not the sort of person who believes in ghosts in real life. But during her research for The Little Stranger, she became intrigued by theories about what causes poltergeists.

"Some kind of dark energy that could be produced when we're unhappy," she notes. "Or in conflict, or repressing something. Something that can split itself off from us — and start causing havoc."

In a review in Salon's Must Read column, critic Laura Miller cheered The Little Stranger for returning style, innovation and brilliance to a form often cheapened by horror. Rather than Grand Guignol gore, Waters delicately evokes suspense, chills and what an academic might call the Gothic sublime.

"She's really written one of the great modern ghost stories of our time," says Miller.

It's not all spooks and spirits; The Little Stranger is a novel that seethes with bitterly felt class resentment. Its narrator is a shabby country doctor, back in the day when aristocrats saw doctors as barely above servants. He is treating Hundreds Hall's young master, who has recently returned from the war. Dr. Faraday ascribes his patient's increasingly alarming outbursts to "nerve storms" — the era's equivalent to PTSD. But it soon seems something even darker haunts the young man, a malicious entity intent on ruining the entire family.

Waters' own family exemplifies profound class shifts in British society after World War II. Her grandmother served as a nursemaid at a great house; Waters has a Ph.D. in literary studies. In The Little Stranger, Waters intended to explore the postwar undermining of England's rigid class system.

Setting her novel at Hundreds Hall allowed her to introduce both Gothic elements and historical ones — such as the introduction of the National Health Service and the spread of council estates during the 1940s. But Waters says she did not set out to write a ghost story.

"I kind of had a vision of a country house, a fading gentry family living inside it, trying and failing to keep pace with a changing world," she muses. "And then I thought actually, so many middle-class people felt actively menaced by postwar changes. How about if I give them a real menace ... and make it a haunted house story?"

Up until now Waters' immersive, prodigiously researched historical novels — which include the Victorian-era Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet — have all featured lesbian heroines. And while the author is aware that the lack of lesbian characters in her new book may upset some fans, she says it was not a calculated decision.

"It wasn't a novel about sexuality for me at all," she says. "It was much more about class. And, of course, I could have squeezed in a minor lesbian character or something, but that would have felt very tokenistic and inorganic."

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.

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