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Originally published Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Little Stranger": A hauntingly good ghost story from Sarah Waters

"The Little Stranger" is novelist Sarah Waters' tale of the haunting of an English family and their ancestral home. Waters appears Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Sarah Waters

The author of "The Little Stranger" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

"The Little Stranger"

by Sarah Waters

Riverhead, 463 pp., $26.95

Since the days when we got all our tales around the campfire, the storyteller has shaped the story. Author Sarah Waters has chosen to tell the story of "The Little Stranger," her novel of ghosts, hauntings and madness, through the words of mild-mannered country physician Dr. Faraday.

The good doctor Faraday recounts the gothic tale of the Ayres, a going-to-seed wealthy family in rural Warwickshire just after World War II. Dr. Faraday has the long view on the Ayres because his mother worked as a maid in their house, back before two world wars brought the family to its knees. As each Ayres becomes the quarry for a malevolent spirit haunting Hundreds Hall, Dr. Faraday recounts events just like a medical man: concerned but detached, determined to remain rational about events for which there is no rational explanation.

Waters is the British author of several period English novels, including "Tipping the Velvet," a lesbian-themed novel set in Victorian England. "The Little Stranger" moves into post-Empire, post-World War II England, when the country is reeling from the disintegration of its empire and the terrible losses of two world wars. It's fertile ground for a novelist with Waters' skill at spinning an unsettling psychological and supernatural spell.

Hundreds Hall is one big metaphor for the country's reduced circumstances. The family is selling off its immense holdings of land — the hall, with its enormous rooms and ornate salons, is going to mold, rot and ruin. Dr. Faraday remembers a visit he made to Hundreds as a boy to an "Empire Day fete" shortly after World War I, when he pried loose a piece of ornate plaster and put it in his pocket. But shortly thereafter a beloved young daughter of the Ayres died, and the family began its retreat from the world.

Post-World War II, nobody's feting the Empire; they're pondering where their next meal is coming from. Everything — food, gasoline — is still rationed; Roderick Ayres, the son and heir of Hundreds Hall, has suffered an excruciating war injury and may be shellshocked, but he's still trying to manage the estate. Rod's sister Caroline and their mother valiantly carry on a semblance of the titled country life, even as their straitened circumstances force them to close off each room, one by one.

And then the hauntings start.

One of the best tricks in Waters' authorial bag is her Hitchcockian gift for making mundane household occurrences — spots on the wall, a lost pair of cufflinks — turn into intimations of evil. A shaving mirror begins to inch its way across the washing stand toward him, — and then assaults its owner.As the hauntings target each family member in succession, Dr. Faraday is drawn further into their confidences and terrors, becoming not just the family physician but its counselor. The class tension created by this dependence on a humble country doctor boils over: "Get your hands off me!" Rod cries as Faraday tries to talk him out of the notion of the hauntings. "Don't you f-ing well tell me how to behave! That's all you ever do... How did you manage to get such a footing in this house? You're not part of this family! You're no one!"

As the ... whatever it is ... pursues the Ayres, the reader may start to feel a bit of Rod's irritation. Like Woody Allen, Dr. Faraday just keeps showing up, reprising events in a curiously clinical fashion. Even Caroline, the object of his desire, is described almost anatomically: "She sang as she spoke, tunefully, the words coming clean and whole from her well-shaped mouth." The tale is told from a certain remove, and at times this lack of engagement damps down the sympathy the reader feels for the embattled Ayres clan.

What is Sarah Waters, a virtuoso writer, up to? Is everyone everything they seem?

If you want a ghost story that creeps up your spine, "The Little Stranger" delivers. If you want to get to the heart of the interlocking mystery at the core of this book — well, you'll have to read the whole thing. I would tell you, but something — or someone — is looking over my shoulder.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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