Waters Keeps the Creeps Coming in 'Little Stranger'

Article excerpt

A reviewer probably shouldn't admit this, but while making my way through Sarah Waters' new novel, "The Little Stranger," I'd sometimes forget to take notes, so hypnotized was I by the spell of this completely absorbing book. "The Little Stranger" is a ghost story full of mystery, but it wasn't simply a matter of finding out what happened next; I wanted to linger in that fictional world, page by page, chapter by chapter.

Waters has been nominated twice for the Man Booker Prize, one of literature's highest honors, after first gaining a cult following for novels such as "Tipping the Velvet" and "Affinity," clever mash- ups of Victorian melodrama and lesbian fiction. With her last book, "The Night Watch," Waters advanced to the 1940s, with a story of women in London during World War II.

"The Little Stranger," set in the English countryside just after the war, features no explicitly Sapphic sisters. But Waters' ease with period detail is still on display; when a character, for example, opens his liquor cabinet, this small act subtly evokes the time and place: "I found a flask of brandy, and some duty sloe gin, and a small, sealed keg of prewar Polish spirit I had once won at a charity raffle and never had the courage to try."

The novel is narrated by a Dr. Faraday -- no first name given, a touch that suggests a novel from another period. Faraday is a middle- aged bachelor with a modest medical practice in Warwickshire. One day, he is summoned to the decaying local manor house, Hundreds Hall, where a parlor maid is complaining of a stomachache. It's not Faraday's first visit to the Hall; as a child he attended an Empire Day fete at the manor -- then in its glory days -- and, when no one was looking, used his penknife to cut loose a decorative plaster acorn, a memento of this inaccessible world of privilege.

Returning decades later, Faraday is shocked to find the hall in total disrepair. The Ayres family has seen better days, too -- embittered son Roderick was injured severely during the war, daughter Caroline is a charming, but plain, spinster with no prospects, and Mrs. …