Author L.P. Hartley once claimed that the ghost story was the hardest literary discipline because there is “no intermediate step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.”
This makes life especially difficult for the 21st century writer. It’s so easy these days to see viscerally horrifying images whether in film, video games, or the internet. Surely an art honed to explore more intangible terrors — a thinning of the dividing line between the living and the dead, for instance — has little chance of making an impact on our jaded senses.
It’s curious then to re-read two favourite novels and find that supernatural fiction — subtle, character-driven, and thoughtful — has lost none of its power to invade the unconscious mind and awaken existential terror.
Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, published in 2009, opens with a memory: A general practitioner, Dr. Faraday, recalls a boyhood Empire Day fête on the grounds of ‘Hundreds Hall’, the grand home of his mother’s former employers, the Ayreses. It is the summer after the Great War. As his mother was once in service for the family, the boy is allowed the rare privilege of sneaking briefly beyond the servants’ quarters into the main part of the house.
Astounded by the beauty of the place, he surreptitiously takes out his penknife, cuts a plaster acorn from its molding, and hides it in his pocket, a “crime” which becomes a guilty secret for a clever, well-behaved future physician. As he looks back, he realizes it was as if “the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it.”
The episode awakens the novel’s theme. The Little Stranger is set amidst the societal upheavals of late 1940s Britain, the growth in social housing, universal health care etc., and the decline of the landed gentry. The fortunes of the Ayreses have long since slumped and Hundreds Hall has similarly fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, the former village boy has risen far enough in status to tend the family servants and even to socialize with the new generation of Ayreses.
Times are changing. Siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres complain that their ailing maid, Betty, is in many ways better off than them. Dr. Faraday sees the self-delusion in such sentiments, yet he’s also drawn to the the Ayreses. He finds himself regretting how Caroline’s hands have become grimy from peeling her own vegetables. Like many of Waters’s characters, Dr. Faraday is at once complex, convincing, and full of internal contradictions. He resents the young aristocrats for the liberties they take yet yearns for the time when they might have lived in the splendor their parents would have expected for them.
Betty, the maid, isn’t exactly sick. She is frightened of a house full of winding servants’ staircases and obsolete gadgets like the the call bells and wires, that “imperious little machine designed to summon a staff of servants to the grander realm above.” The silence in the house is “so pure, it [feels] pressurized.”
As various mishaps occur — unexplained burn marks on the walls, a child attacked at a social gathering, apparently, by Caroline’s dog Gyp — Dr. Faraday gets closer and closer to the Ayreses, even beginning an unlikely courtship with Caroline. Caroline becomes Hundreds Hall’s most likely heir as her brother’s mental health is threatened.
But is Dr. Faraday really in love with Caroline? Or is he more enamored with the idea of possessing the house? An unwholesome, subtly corrupt atmosphere leaks through the seams of ordinary life as Dr. Faraday struggles with the legacy of class divisions and his own covetousness.
The Little Stranger walks a remarkable line uniting two elements which ought to be mutually exclusive: it creates a sense of logic, a cause and effect, between living characters and supernatural events. Yet those same occurrences remain the province of an unfathomable mystery.
Fifty years before The Little Stranger, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House, another seminal work of the supernatural.
Like The Little Stranger, The Haunting of Hill House is peopled by characters as three dimensional as any in fiction, and it features a house which becomes a living part of the plot.
Eleanor Vance, sole carer of her long-ailing mother, finds that when her charge dies she has no career, no friends, and at thirty-four years of age lives as a permanent but unwelcome guest in her sister’s home.
A series of poltergeist-like events in her youth means Eleanor has been picked as one of the subjects of a summer-long experiment run by Dr. John Montague, an academic studying the supernatural. Dr. Montague wants to observe what happens when susceptible people — possible mediums — spend a couple of months in a notoriously haunted home, the Hill House of the title.
Seeing the project as an escape and an overdue adventure, Eleanor arrives with a heightened sense of excitement. Meeting the bohemian Theodora, a fellow subject, Eleanor invents a life for herself in which she, like Theodora, has her own apartment.
The house, Dr. Montague explains, was designed by its original owner, Hugh Crain, eighty years before and deliberately built with disorienting tilts and angles so that guests become easily lost.
The family history of the Crains is unhappy. Two daughters were left in the house as the widowed Crain took a new wife abroad where he died. One sister inherited and fell out with her sibling who was then accused of breaking in at night and stealing objects.
As Dr. Montague’s subjects settle into Hill House, disturbances begin to occur at night. Something makes a deafening clang along the upstairs landing. Voices murmur through the walls and there is a child’s mocking laughter. Cryptic messages, aimed apparently at Eleanor, appear in huge chalk letters over the walls, and Theodora’s clothes are vandalized and smeared in blood. A nighttime walk for Eleanor and Theodora suddenly turns into blinding daylight and they scramble back to the house, traumatized.
Later in the novel, Luke, one of the company, and the heir to Hill House, reads from a book created by Crain for the eldest of his daughters. Though religious in tone, the language Crain uses reveals a narcissism bordering on blasphemy; he looks forward to when his daughter can be reunited with her father in heaven. But the “father” he refers to is himself. This, the book’s lurid, sexual illustrations which purport to be moral lessons, and an immodest statue self-portrait suggest Hugh Crain was, and might still be, a deeply baleful presence in the house.
Eleanor is the subject most affected by Hill House. She becomes curiously awake to every movement, even those in distant rooms. “Far away, upstairs, perhaps in the nursery, a little eddy of wind gathered itself and swept along the floor, carrying dust. In the library the iron stairway swayed, and light glittered on the marble eyes of Hugh Crain.”
Theodora, and the others, suspect some of the disturbances revolve around Eleanor’s psychokinetic powers. Eleanor herself senses the house wishes to consume her and make her its own.
These novels, to echo the words of L.P. Hartley, both “come off” admirably in the supernatural sense, but they also satisfy every other literary criteria. Both The Little Stranger and The Haunting of Hill House achieve high levels of supernatural frisson without allowing the ghostly elements to dominate the characters’ individual psychology. In both cases the protagonists are uncomfortably real, and the hauntings in some way relate to their yearnings or their fears.
Neither Waters nor Jackson try to solve the riddle of the universe. They don’t give their hauntings an explanation, just a series of provocative hints and implications. This, in the end, is part of what makes the novels so memorable.
Nothing is more compelling than a question left unanswered.
Paul Butler is the author of the novel, The Widow’s Fire.