The narrator of this ghost story is Doctor Faraday, a doctor from a country village, right after World War II. One day, he is called at the Hundreds, an impressive Georgian mansion that is starting to fall apart, for want of good care. He remembers being impressed by the house as a child, when his mother used to be a nanny for the Ayres family, the masters of the place, and once smuggled him inside. But the house has lost most of its former magnificence, and the present inhabitants, Roderick and Caroline, and their mother, have a lot of trouble keeping the place standing, and have to sell a lot of land just for the maintenance of what’s left…

As the doctor becomes more and more involved with the Ayres family, treating Roderick’s leg for a war injury, he realizes that there is more unsettling the family than just money troubles. Strange things are happening in the house, burnt marks are seen and unusual noises are heard. At the same time, Roderick’s mental health is quickly deteriorating…

As a rule, I am not overly fond of Gothic stories written nowadays. I think the genre reached its perfection in the 19th century, with authors such as Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James, and that everything that is written today pales compared to the classics, or else falls into other categories, like horror for instance. But with The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, who is a very gifted storyteller, has outdone herself and achieved something slightly different and highly worthy, compared to the masters of the genre (and to what she usually writes).

While it is relatively easy to write a gory tale, the narration of a (convincing) haunting is a very tricky thing to manage. Such stories are rarely scary or interesting, to tell the truth… The Little Stranger starts very slowly (while managing to hook us right away), getting us acquainted with the characters and building an atmosphere, and then, the pace picks up and the book becomes more and more difficult to put down. Sarah Waters manages to truly chill the reader, to keep him on edge: there are one or two particularly hair-raising scenes, all relying on atmosphere and suspense, that one should not wish to read alone in a big house on a wintery night! Of course Sarah Waters acknowledges the masters of the genre (particularly Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher), but as she gave a new twist to the Victorian novel in Fingersmith, she brings something different and unexpected to The Little Stranger too, while managing to convey all the different layers of interpretation that make reading such a novel an interesting journey. The Roderick/Caroline brother/sister pair is an interesting variation on the Roderick/Madeline pair from Poe (the weakest one, by tradition and mostly in Poe’s literature, is usually the woman, while in The Little Stranger, it is the man), and the doctor, a class-conscious man whose feelings toward the house and the family are shifting and complex, makes for one of the most interestingly unreliable narrators I have come across in a while. The ending is also very satisfying, but not everything is spelt out for the reader, and a little thinking is required (but fortunately not, like with other books, the need to reread all to get it…)

A clever, chilling and exciting story by a masterful storyteller, that stays with the reader long after the book is closed…

Rating: 5/5