Thursday, September 17, 2015

Nightmare Downton Abbey

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009): The Little Stranger begins with a brief incident involving our narrator Faraday's visit as a boy to the English estate dubbed The Hundreds, just after the conclusion of World War One. The main part of the narrative takes place a couple of years after the conclusion of World War Two, still narrated by that boy who's now a country doctor in his childhood village in Warwickshire, an area in Central England half-way between London and Liverpool and just west of Birmingham, containing Stratford-Upon-Avon and Coventry. 

Dr. Faraday's mother worked at The Hundreds as a nursery attendant; his father was also a working man. They managed to put together enough money to put Faraday through good enough schools to get through to his M.D.. He has a lingering guilt over the idea that his parents' efforts on his behalf led to their early deaths. He also pointedly feels class snobbery throughout the novel, both generally and in his practice: he feels that he's at a disadvantage against his 'higher-born' colleagues when it comes to getting well-off clients.

As the main narrative begins, Faraday answers a call at The Hundreds. His colleague who normally handles medical problems at the estate is on another call. And so for the first time in 30 years, Faraday steps into what seems to have been a shining moment in his youth. However, what he finds is becoming more and more the normative in 20th-century England -- an estate and a family fallen on hard times and in the process of falling further as Clement Atlee's new Labour government sets higher taxes on the wealthy and the landed. 

Both the house and the grounds are falling into chaos and ruin. The Ayres family, longtime owners of The Hundreds, simply don't have the money to keep things running the way they ran during Faraday's boyhood visit. Faraday is appalled but charmed by the still-impressive mansion. He's been called to find out what's wrong with the Ayres' last full-time servant, a 14-year-old maid who's only been with them for a month or so.

Faraday quickly realizes that the maid is feigning illness. She's anxious over her feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially at night in the nearly deserted mansion as she sleeps a substantial distance away from anyone else. And she believes there's a malevolent ghost loose in The Hundreds. So it begins.

The novel takes cues from a number of the greatest hits of the horror genre. It's easy to see The Turn of the Screw in the setting of an underpopulated country house as seen and described with at least some unreliability by someone who isn't from England's upper class. The Hundreds is inhabited by a mother and her two grown children. The daughter is named Caroline, the son Roderick. So the novel nods to another waning family and decaying mansion in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." You know, with a major character named RODERICK Usher. Nudge, nudge.

Mainstream critics certainly seemed to twig to these well-known, canonical works in relation to Waters' novel. The novel's style certainly suggests neither Poe nor James. It's solid and workmanlike, and the accumulation of telling detail works throughout with the slowly turning screw of the plot so as to make The Little Stranger a terrific page-turner. That the novel crashes into the mountain and explodes over the last 20 pages is a shame, but what comes before is mostly excellent.

How does a ghost story get shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, as this novel was? Well, Waters was a well-regarded, mainstream novelist. The Little Stranger deals with Great Britain's still overwhelmingly class-oriented social system to the extent that the novel's ghostly, ghastly happenings all constellate around class consciousness, class resentment, and social change. People love class-related stuff, especially when it's set in the past and especially when there's decaying gentry and giant houses involved. It's Downton Nightmare Abbey.

Dr. Faraday will become increasingly entangled in the affairs of the Ayres family. He'll reveal through his narration his growing devotion to both them and their magnificently decaying estate. Bad things will happen with decreasingly believable rational explanations. Is there a ghost? Is Faraday becoming obsessed with The Hundreds over and above his concern for the people there? Will anyone call in a vicar or read a book about supernatural occurrences published in the 20th century? Is 'spinster' Caroline, perhaps 30, really a repressed lesbian? Will Basil Exposition show up?

Well, 'sort of' to that last question. Waters generally has a light hand with explanation and exposition. But the novel's favoured explanation of what's going on at The Hundreds is so odd that the two bouts of exposition that explain the concept aren't enough to suspend my disbelief. And I'm willing to believe an awful lot in the context of a ghost story. 

But what's required here isn't simply belief in a fairly dodgy concept that shows up in some explanations of poltergeist activity. It's belief in something that can reach across miles of distance, read minds, imitate a wide variety of sounds and voices, spontaneously start fires, write in some indelible way on walls, lift and throw heavy objects, control animals, and possibly apport objects from one location to another. It's not a poltergeist or a ghost -- it's the Swiss Army Knife of the spiritual world, with powers that would make for a pretty dangerous member of the X-Men.

Some of the problem springs from the fact that the supernatural explanation has to be fitted to the novel's exploration of class resentment. And ghosts and other supernatural forces have indeed often functioned as metaphorical explorations of real-world social and personal problems. But Waters' concept has so many moving parts! And it's so programmatic in relation to the sub-text it's illustrating! It's not too far removed from the Hyper-allegorical monsters of Edmund Spenser's The Fairie Queene. Especially Errour, who vomits evil books because dammit, I you will understand this point I'm making about erroneous interpretations of the Bible as set forth during the Great Pamphlet Wars.

And so The Little Stranger ends up stranded in a sort of metaphorical borderland between the two greatest English-language haunted-house novels of the 20th century, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's Hell House. Jackson's novel leaves the reader in as much mystery at the end as it does at the beginning -- supernatural events have occurred, but it's difficult to see any meaning in them beyond the basic malign, and their mechanisms are never revealed. Hell House offers a pseudoscientific explanation for its horrors, fully explained and reasoned through, and satisfying in a literary sense without destroying any of the horror that has preceded the final solution.

The Little Stranger stands between these two. There's still mystery at the end, but the novel has advanced a preferred or privileged explanation of the reasons and mechanisms of the haunting. But that explanation is too brief and patched together to seem convincing. 

The novel also falls away from the peaks of the haunted-house novel as a sub-genre because of an attribute it shares with many of Stephen King's novels: the dominance of the sub-text. The Shining is a haunted-house novel that has a very clear and intentional sub-text; it's the haunting as an elaborate metaphor for domestic abuse as perpetrated by an addictive personality under pressure. Obviously there are other things in there too, but the sub-text looms over the events in the Overlook Hotel. Similarly, The Little Stranger uses the supernatural to discuss issues of class and gender in England after World War Two (and, really, to the present day -- it's not like the gentry have gone away). 

But the aforementioned novels by Jackson and Matheson aren't about something other than the supernatural, at least not in the programmatic way that the Waters and King texts are. They're ultimately about the hauntings themselves, and how small groups of people deal with them. The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House engage fully with the Sublime and the mysterious. The Little Stranger does not -- nor does it seem to want to except in a couple of brief passages. As such, it's a finer novel involving class conflicts and social change than it is a ghost story. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

The Little Stranger is a heck of a ride, dense with period detail and blessed with a narrator who may be too sympathetic for the novel's own good. That he's unreliable and obsessive may or may not matter -- the novel certainly privileges one reading of the events over all others by the conclusion, but it doesn't seal off one's ability to read things in other ways. The major characters are all skilfully drawn, a period skilfully evoked, a disintegrating house skilfully drawn so as to almost become a character itself. Highly recommended.

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