Hundreds Hall is in decline and its owners are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life?
Sarah Waters's masterly novel is a perverse hymn to decay, to the corrosive power of class resentment as well as the damage wrought by war. Hundreds Hall is crawling with blights and moulds, crumbling from subsidence and water damage … The reader of Affinity will know that Waters is creepily conversant with ways to scare us. The reader of Fingersmith will know how deftly she handles a plot twist. The Little Stranger is a more controlled and composed novel than her last book, the widely admired The Night Watch, which was set during the second world war. Here she deploys the vigour and cunning one finds in Margaret Atwood's fiction. She has the same narrative ease and expansiveness, and the same knack of twisting the tension tighter and tighter within an individual scene … Waters manages the conclusion of her book with consummate, quiet skill. It is gripping, confident, unnerving and supremely entertaining.
Sarah Waters ain't afraid of no ghost. Her new novel, a deliciously creepy tale called The Little Stranger, is haunted by the spirits of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe … The supernatural creaks and groans that reverberate through this tale are accompanied by malignant strains of class envy and sexual repression that infect every perfectly reasonable explanation we hear. The result is a ghost story as intelligent as it is stylish … Waters teases us with clues that send us running off in every direction: psychological, paranormal and socioeconomic. But the story's sustained ambiguity is what keeps our attention, and her perfectly calibrated tone casts an unnerving spell over these pages.
Sarah Waters is an excellent, evocative writer, and this is an incredibly gripping and readable novel. But to some extent her skill works against her. The Ayreses are such lovingly depicted and realistic characters that it becomes hard to accept their gothic fates … If death is a harsh sentence for all but the flattest fictional characters, then one is left with the uncomfortable sense that the Ayreses have been needlessly murdered by progress and social change, which doesn’t feel quite right either.