I was tempted to pick up ‘The Little Stranger’ (a book by Sarah Waters that actually made the cut for the Booker in 2009) despite being warned it was a spooky ghost story. If truth be told, my fascination with spooky stories wore off a long time ago. Subjecting yourself to reading or watching something that evokes fear is just a way of setting yourself up to a host of psychological issues, and when one spends many days alone in their house, it’s just not worth the thrill. Who needs to be scared of dark rooms and shadows? But my sister Fatu (who read the book before I) said it was a good read and I allowed myself to fall into the trap, as of course, once you start reading you can’t really stop; she did warn me, however, that all her dormant fears had sprung to life.
This only served to pique my curiosity however, and now I find myself a little more than halfway through the book. Here’s the gist so far. The Ayres family -mother, son and daughter – live in a once-glorious but now decaying Georgian house in rural Warwickshire. The family struggles to keep pace with a changing society and to make ends meet by selling chunks of their estate in post-war Britain. A middle-aged doctor is called upon to treat a young maid at the house, and as the novel progresses we find him becoming more a sympathetic friend to the family than a medical man who wants to help by treating the war wounds of the son.
The general atmosphere and layout of the huge house (Hundreds Hall it is called) sets the backdrop and mood for the story that unfolds little by little. It is dark, and imbued with a sense of tension underlying the apparent calm. We get the first taste of impending doom with a horrible incident that takes place about 97 pages into the book.
Without giving away too much of the plot and the story, it seems that the Ayres family is haunted by something. Roderick (the son) is tormented by sounds that go unheard by his sister Caroline and his mother and only Betty the maid shares his sense of foreboding. Strange marks appear on the walls and ceiling of Roderick’s room, and he is inexplicably injured in the dark by open doors that were meant to be closed, and heavy furniture that positions itself mysteriously in his path causing him to trip and fall. Various items from his wardrobe disappear, only to reappear in strange places, and his shaving mirror (as he stares in mounting horror) scrapes across a stand and launches itself at his head and shatters into pieces. Naturally, his conviction that there is a malevolent presence in the house is met with disbelief. The only logical explanation seems to be mental illness caused by a combination of post-war trauma and the stress caused by financial crisis. The poor boy is removed to a mental institution after he is suspected of setting fire to his own room, an event that smacks to the already spooked reader of something decidedly bizarre.
It’s all okay when one is reading a spooky story in daylight. I, for one, propped it up as I treadmilled at the gym, and 30 minutes passed so quickly I didn’t even notice I was done. So compelling is the book, I’ve been going through my chores as quickly as I can so I can get back to reading; not because the book is a page-turner, but because I need to know what will happen next. I’m just taking time off to write this blog so I can share an inexplicable event that occurred late last night.
It was around 1:30 am, and all was quiet in the house. I was the only one awake. The allusion to paranormal activity in the book was playing on my mind, so naturally I was glad Huz was asleep next to me but felt a twinge of guilt about Amu who was all by herself in her room. There were a couple of things I needed to do before hitting the sack that involved me stepping out of my room, but with the irrational fear of the occasional coward, I didn’t feel like opening my room door. While I was debating what to do, there came the unmistakable sound of something heavy come crashing down in the living room. I guess this is how the heroine in a scary movie feels as her instinctive need to protect herself is overthrown by the curiosity of knowing what’s going on, and I found myself walking to the door and turning the handle to open it. My first thought was of a burglar tripping over something, and with my heart beating terribly fast, I braced myself to confront a strange face.
There was no one in the living room, but the movement of the curtains blowing lightly with the breeze from the balcony door made me flinch. I walked past the dark study (pushing out thoughts of a hand reaching out to grab me) to switch on the lights, and it was only as I glanced at the living room wall and saw the vacant space there that my blood froze and the second, more sinister thought crawled into my head.
A large framed painting that hung in the middle of the wall was now lying on the floor, surrounded by the debris of broken framing and a screw that had prised itself loose from its bearings. Surprisingly, the glass had remained intact.
My skin prickling with goosebumps, the air thick with an unnameable fear, I walked with unbearable slowness back to my room and closed the door behind me. Huz had slept through it all, but as I crept into bed he suddenly opened his eyes and said,
‘Did the phone just ring?’