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Madness, A Mansion And Overtones Of the Occult

For a writer so gifted at conjuring up worlds in which unspoken longings seem to manifest themselves as otherworldly phenomena, British novelist Sarah Waters is surprisingly dismissive of her own superstitions, which she sees as symptomatic of her lower-middle-class origins. Her grandparents worked as servants, her parents were the first in the family to attend grammar school, and the Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith author learned early on to touch wood, cherish the Catholic saints, and worry that it would be bad luck to try to move too far beyond the station to which she was born.

Class anxiety is the animating force behind Waters' fifth book, The Little Stranger, a suspenseful and psychologically layered haunted-house story set in the aftermath of World War II, when the fading gentry collided with the emerging professional class that would once have been the help. The novel opens as its narrator, Dr. Faraday, arrives at Hundreds Hall, the Ayers family manor, to treat the maid. Faraday quickly realizes the girl is fine; her real affliction is not a stomachache but an ignorant and, to a medical man, wholly frustrating terror of ghosts. It's the condition of the house itself, now a grim structure crumbling in a thicket of weeds, that worries him. His late mother had once been a servant there, and when Faraday was a boy the majesty of the place had filled him with such yearning that he'd sawed away at a decorative acorn with his penknife and slid it into his pocket.

Although her past works have focused on lesbian characters, repressed desire has always been Waters' terrain. In her hands these hidden longings incite turmoil and even blur into the occult. In The Little Stranger, Hundreds Hall serves as a perfect symbol of the postwar erosion of Britain's class hierarchies, but it also, increasingly, transforms into a scheming, deadly character.

By turns, each of the Ayerses worries that the house has turned against them — or at least that some angry spirit within it intends to exact something from them. And as the good country doctor becomes entangled in the family's long, slow decline, his rational explanations for all that goes wrong seem less probable and become far more maddening than the family's superstitions. In the shadows lurks some sinister force, some "ravenous shadow-creature" motivated by "all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep away."

Waters, a master at stoking anticipation, withholds the truth about her ghost until the final pages. By then we already strongly suspect its identity, but the confirmation is subtle, surprising, and deeply, deeply chilling.

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Maud Newton is a writer, editor and . Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Newsday and other publications. She is a recipient of the City College of New York's Irwin and Alice Stark Short Fiction Award.