As evening approaches and house darkens with the approach of a summer thunderstorm, I am inspired to share with you a book I just finished, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. This book will scratch your spooky English gothic itch with its tale of an aristocratic family in decline, the rapid decay of their ancestral home, Hundreds Hall, and the paranormal goings-on that haunt them. The family doctor, Faraday, happens upon the last family members living in the Hall: mother, daughter, and son and heir, struggling to get by in their gentle poverty. Faraday quickly becomes enamored of the family and the charm of the once grand estate. As the story’s narrator, he is always on hand to calm a hysterical maid or offer a scientific explanation for the increasingly bizarre and dangerous events which plague the Ayres family. The (spoiler alert!) mental undoing of the son can be logically explained by his war experiences, the apparent suicide of the mother from her grief over the loss of her child…but the strange fires, the mysterious writing on walls, the tapping and noises all contribute to a crescendo of fear and “nerves” on the part of the inhabitants, which could, maybe be explained as mass hysteria or delusion…or, perhaps, something else. The ending is not satisfying for those of us who want an explanation, damn it! but instead leaves the reader to make his/her own conclusion. But aside from the ghost story is another, which touches on class. The narrator, Dr. Faraday, is keenly aware of his lowly position in the community and in the eyes of the elitist Ayres family. Dr. Faraday, nonetheless, ingratiates himself with the family and becomes indispensable, eventually winning the daughter’s tacit affections and agreement to marry him. The interesting twist is that Dr. Faraday is every bit as much in love with Hundreds Hall as he is the squire’s daughter, and is aghast when he learns she may not want to live there. The common man marrying the house as well as the Lord’s daughter brings to mind a much more well-known version of this theme, as it played out in Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh). The narrator in that novel, also a man of common birth who observes and comments on the great family with whom he has become swept up with, eventually convinces the daughter, Julia Flyte, to leave her husband to marry him. In one scene, he is horrified to learn that she wants to leave Brideshead and never return. The house in both these novels is nearly a character in itself. It certainly has a powerful draw for the outsider narrator, and an almost repulsive energy to the family which has grown up in it.
Other novels have featured the great house almost as a character in and of itself in the novel. The looming importance of the house is mentioned in the famous opening lines of Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Manderley becomes as much of a ghost as Rebecca as the novel unfolds. In Gone With the Wind, Tara becomes a force which changes and shapes the fate of Scarlett. There are many novels set in great houses, but when the house itself becomes an entity able to exert influence in those who inhabit it, you have to wonder if there really is such a thing as ghosts.