Ever since the cherubic Carol-Ann announced the arrival of some fairly gruesome visitors to her family home in Steven Spielberg's affront to mothers everywhere -- Poltergeist -- the definition of the term has been largely misunderstood. As it turns out, a poltergeist isn't a ghost at all. Although its etymology, in German, translates as "knocking ghost," poltergeists are classified as a phenomenon of living energy: meaning that a living person, under duress, can actually be unwittingly responsible for unexplained tapping between walls, slamming of doors, spontaneous combustion, possession and inanimate objects which propel through the air as if they had been thrown. In most documented cases, all activity takes place in a home fraught with anxiety, and is more likely to occur if there are adolescent children present. The Enfield case of 1977 was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, but as parapsychology went out of vogue in the 80s along with legwarmers, most people prefer to label it a pseudoscience.
In her new novel The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, an English writer most well-known for her hugely successful lesbian romance/historical fiction novel Tipping the Velvet, has turned her sights to a more traditional English meme -- the ghost story. Taking her inspiration from the master of mystery and suspense, Edgar Allan Poe, Waters essentially retells "The Fall of the House of Usher." The novel, which takes place in post-war England, is obviously intended as homage, as the master of Hundreds Hall is named Roderick Ayers, a direct nod to Poe's Roderick Usher. Removed from the family, the narrator is a doctor named Faraday whose mother used to work as a maid at Hundreds Hall. He enters the scene when the family, some fifteen years later, calls on his medical services for their current maid, Betty. Although she complains of a stomach ailment, she comes clean to Faraday: it's the house that's terrified her, and she hopes to escape.
Of course no one indulges poor little Betty's complaints, especially the levelheaded daughter of the estate, Caroline Ayers, whose stately presence seems to suggest she would never allow anything out of sorts to go on at Hundreds Hall. Called back from her job as a Wren (Women's Royal Navy) on the front lines to nurse Roderick, who went crazy with shellshock after his airplane was shot down, Caroline functions more as the head of household, keeping her brother and mother in line. She is completely characterized by her lack of sexual appeal: "noticeably plain, over-tall for a woman, with thickish legs and ankles." In other words, Caroline's the stiff upper lip of this joint. Noticing that Roderick's leg, which was badly mangled in the crash, has not healed well, Faraday offers to come back to give him free electrical treatments to warm the muscles, and quickly becomes a permanent fixture in the Ayers' routine. The family's acceptance of Faraday feels a bit forced, as he is clearly born of a much lower class, but, having fallen into hard times, they accept his kindness.
Things pretty much go downhill from here. Gyp, the family dog, mauls a young female visitor as if provoked by an invisible force during a party, and has to be put down. Roderick sets fire to his room and is dispatched to a mental ward. Several other grisly and unfortunate events occur, convincing nearly everyone in the house (aside from Dr. Faraday) that they are dealing with some supernatural spirit. Most likely the ghost of Mrs. Ayers' first daughter, Susan, who died as a small child in the nursery upstairs. To make matters more complicated, Dr. Faraday, despite his original disdain for her looks, becomes enamored with Caroline and means to marry her. All the while the ancient house creaks and falls to pieces around their heads.
There are a number of ways one can interpret what Waters wants us to take away from this ghost story -- and one implication I found most intriguing is that Caroline herself, in frustration with her "old-maid" status at twenty-seven years of age, is manifesting some sort of violence against herself and her family, a side-effect of a lack of sex. Perhaps Dr. Faraday's presence ignites emotions that she hadn't tapped into for years; another doctor even recommends to Faraday that all she needs is a good roll in the hay. Waters' previous novels and Caroline's behavior with a female friend at a dance party seem to suggest that Caroline might not even be interested in Faraday, or in men at all. Or, on the other hand, maybe she's got an unhealthy fascination with her brother? This theory would seem to support itself as the strange hauntings only intensify when Roderick is removed from the premises. Oh what a tangled web of female desire!
It seems more likely, however, that Faraday himself is somewhat to blame for the events at Hundreds Hall, which begin shortly after his interference. We never really learn how Faraday's mother died: perhaps she was worked to death at Hundreds, and she's "the little stranger," who has come back from the dead to seek her revenge on the Ayers' lot, using Faraday as her living henchman to enact the deeds. There is an out of body experience that would suggest as much:
"I began to feel out of time and place, an absolute stranger . . . And in slumber I seemed to leave the car, and to press on to Hundreds: I saw myself doing it, with all the hectic, unnatural clarity with which I'd been recalling the dash to the hospital a little while before. I saw myself cross the silvered landscape and pass like smoke through the Hundreds gate. I saw myself start along the Hundreds drive."
Regardless of which character is responsible for the events, the novel is a quick, terrifying read, and proves Waters not only the master of a great story, but of a suspenseful one at that. Goodness knows there's nothing more alarming than things that go bump in the night -- and whether we cause them, or if some spook has come to frighten us, if the scare factor is devastating enough it doesn't really matter whether it was "real" or not, does it? The end results are the same. Waters has hit the nail on the head here -- well, she's hit it right on Poe's head, whose tales of suspense had more to do with paranoia (most likely sustained from drug and alcohol abuse) than they ever did with the supernatural. It's ultimately more likely our own revenge against ourselves, through guilt and anxiety, that will destroy us, rather than a vengeful spirit. The human mind is truly horrifying in its ability to manifest the bigger picture, to make us see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear when we're afraid. Waters has managed to write a scary, yet believable book. I hope she'll keep changing genres. In the meantime, I'll be practicing at throwing the laundry detergent across the room. With my angst.