I'm not a big fan of ghost stories – I'm always dubious about so-called supernatural events. But that doesn't prevent me from loving well-told stories where sinister elements seem to be at play – especially in English country houses. “The Turn of the Screw” is the classic in this genre, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is in the same tradition.
The time is 1947, the setting is Hundreds Hall in rural Warwickshire, and the Ayres family is struggling to maintain their crumbling family estate in the deprivation of the postwar economy. When their only maid falls ill, they summon Dr. Faraday, a local doctor whose mother served as a nursemaid in the grand house when he was a young boy. Faraday narrates the story, and while his scientific training prevents him from believing that mysterious forces are making mischief, he is enthralled by the house itself and by the aristocratic family – Mrs. Ayres, the elegant matriarch, Roderick, the troubled son who has been damaged both physically and emotionally by the war, and particularly Caroline, the independent unmarried daughter.
When odd things begin to happen, they are not gory Stephen King splatters, but subtle, mysterious incidents – an inexplicable scorch mark, a maid's bell that rings for no reason – that individually might be explained away but collectively increase the family's unease. Waters does a masterful job of slowly ramping up the tension, and as Faraday struggles to convince the family and the reader that there are logical explanations for everything that has happened, he begins to look suspiciously like an unreliable narrator. Does the fascination that this working-class man feels for the upper class Ayres family prevent him from recognizing the danger?
I found this a gripping and entertaining story, at every turn capable of being interpreted in at least two different ways, hurtling along to a conclusion that was unexpected but inevitable.