From ghoulies and ghosties...

In general I'm not a huge fan of ghost stories in literary fiction. Admittedly there are some really good ones - Henry James' novella The turn of the screw, for instance. But others, that have received rave reviews such as Susan Hill's The woman in black have left me completely unmoved, and more to the point not scared at all - and what good's a spooky tale if it doesn't - to quote Dickens - make your flesh creep? Sarah Waters' chiller The little stranger is however a pretty classy read. Admittedly it didn't scare me as much as it seems to have terrified some of its critics, but it still does what it's supposed to, while also providing a commentary on post-war British society.

The narrative has two big influences - Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. In common with Wuthering Heights there is a narrator, Dr. Faraday, who is pulled into events at dilapidated Hundreds Hall, a stately home in Warwickshire, that is gradually falling into decay as the family who live there have little income to keep up the great estate following the Second World War. Faraday is pulled into the drama when the live-in maid, the only live-in servant to survive the post-war slump, is taken ill. She claims reluctantly that there is something eerie about the house, some sort of presence. Faraday, who has known the house since childhood - his mother was a former nannie there - dismisses the maid's words, but as members of the family descend into madness, and increasingly inexplicable events start happening, he is forced to revisit the events - are they completely supernatural or are they prompted by some all too human emotions?

It's a very well written novel (it was nominated for the Man Booker, and deservedly so). The ghostly set-pieces are genuinely scary, and the ending is brilliant, down-beat, and if not entirely unexpected, nevertheless brings you to a very definite stop.

As a gothic novel it's one of the best of recent years. I think in terms of a book that really pulls this genre off successfully it's not as good as Elizabeth Kostova's stunning modern re-hash of the Dracula story - The historian; but where it scores really well is as a re-examination of the post-war mores of Britain with a gripping tale of things going bump in the night for added spice. It really is a very clever book. The first Sarah Waters I've read, and I would now like to read anything else of hers I can lay my hands on. I think that recommendation says it all...


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