The Little Stranger is a story of Hundreds Hall. A crumbling mansion in rural Warwickshire, Hundreds in 1946 is home to the Ayres family, a faded shadow of an ancient aristocracy. Narrated by an outsider, Dr Faraday (yes, really), the novel is a sort of modern reworking of those heavily atmospheric Gothic novels of the eighteenth century; think The Mysteries of Udolpho in postwar Britain, complete with half-heard noises and labyrinthine passageways.
For me, it doesn't quite work.
Don't get me wrong: Waters knows what she's doing. You can feel the full weight of the Gothic tradition behind her when she uses the word "uncanny", and the plot in retrospect has the kind of inevitability that comes from an author utterly at home with her genre. I can't actually point to anything wrong with the novel at all. It's just that I felt absolutely nothing for any of the characters at any point.
OK, that's a lie. For maybe the last fifty pages I felt extreme irritation and a possibly pathological need to go back in time and give the meddling Dr Faraday a good kick up the arse.
But nothing apart from that.
What's frustrating is that nothing actually happens in this novel, and it's not atmospheric enough to make up for 500 pages of non-happening. There are creepy bits, for sure, and they're well done, but they're also in the minority. The promise of a good, juicy ghost story never actually materialises.
The Little Stranger feels ultimately like a study in Gothic: all the ingredients are there, put in the right order; there are Themes below the Gothic machinery, an unreliable narrator, an air of unresolved mystery; but without the essential Gothicness, the atmosphere of unspeakability that is sort of the whole point of the venture in the first place. It's unGothic Gothic.