Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Creepy Houses Double Header

Today I have a double header. Two books where crumbling estates play a major role.

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
3 stars - worth reading

This book was recommended to me by a friend and when I read the dustcover I was reminded that I had read (and I believe enjoyed) two previous works by the same author; Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.

The setting is post World War II England in a once magnificent estate that has fallen on to hard times. The remaining family members (mother, son, and daughter) are barely holding the old place together. The narrator is a local doctor whose mother was a house servant at that very mansion when it was prosperous. He is called to the house to attend to the family's current cook / maid and subsequently begins a relationship with the family that is the basis of the story.

Now, here's the thing of it. I cannot fault Ms. Water's writing. Her descriptions of the house gave me a vivid picture of every small detail of rot and sorrow. Her characters are well rounded and their thoughts and actions are understandable and very human (meaning that not everybody behaves with grace at all times). However...

About halfway through, she lost me. The book became uneven. Was it a ghost story? Was it a study of human nature? The action would ratchet up as the ghost (as I believe that is what it was) would make appearances and then slow down to a grinding halt all too soon. As Ms. Waters exposed more of the occurrences in the house, they started to seem to me almost as if they were plucked from a different story. And while I would have expected the pace to quicken as things reached a climax within the household, it never did.

Don't get me wrong, there were some truly horrifying moments for me in the book, but not where I would have expected them. The leaking roof and subsequent damage to the house and the painful emotional turmoil of the hapless doctor were when I felt most frightened and mesmerized. 

Nearing the end of the book, I imagined all sorts of conclusions. I won't give the ending away, but I much prefer my outcomes to the hollow ending that I was faced with after sticking with it for 450 pages. That said, I can certainly recommend this as a pleasant diversion on a Saturday afternoon.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson
5 stars - have read many times, will likely read again

After I finished The Little Stranger, I had the desire to pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle again. I read this creepy little novel for the first time as a youngster and several times more over the ensuing years.

The edition sent to me by the library was perfect! Check out the pocket for the return card.

It seemed appropriate that a story about a crumbling old house with odd inhabitants should be so well worn. Library junkies will appreciate that this volume was as much a sensory pleasure as an intellectual endeavor. The pages were thick and heavy from being touched by hundreds of hands. Odd stains appeared frequently. The binding opened obligingly, willingly, and oh the smell!

But I digress. Why do I like this book so much? It is certainly not as beautifully written as The Little Stranger, but it is compelling in its simplicity. The book is narrated by 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwell who resides in the old Blackwell mansion with her dying uncle and older sister. They are locked up and isolated due to a pall that was cast when all the other family members were poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl at one fateful meal.

The seductive thing about this is how matter of fact the writing is. Through the eyes of Mary Katherine, there is nothing unusual about their lifestyle. The outside world is ugly and dangerous and the decision of the surviving family to cut themselves off is shown to be painfully well founded when a fire at the estate brings the village crashing in. 

I've always been drawn to Mary Katherine. I find her rituals comforting. I understand. I even envy her ability to go about her life in a practical way regardless of what is actually happening around her. Shirley Jackson is at her best when she is showing how easily people can be disenfranchised. Sadly, this was her final novel as she died just a few years after its publication.


  1. I know what you mean about the ending of The Little Stranger. I really liked the book, but I wanted...more from the ending. I don't want to say more than that to risk spoiling it for others. I'm reading The House at Riverton by Kate Morton right now, and it's set in a similar era, but I like the pacing better!

    I've only read Shirley Jackson's short stories. I didn't know she had any novels to her name!

  2. With Dan on my roof replacing crumbling rubber this week, and talking about teaching himself to replace slate in the next few weeks, crumbling estates seem familiar to me. I'll skip the first one on your say so, but will be on the lookout for the second one.