Don’t be facetious? Oh, okay.
Once again, Waters sets her novel in 1947, just after World War II, but in Warwickshire instead of London. Time-honored social hierarchies are beginning to break down, much to the bemusement of the genteel Ayres family. Their home, Hundreds Hall, was once a grand mansion but is now falling apart due to a lack of money. The family has been forced to sell its more valuable belongings and acres of the surrounding land.
Enter the narrator, middle-aged bachelor Dr. Faraday. His parents, a shopkeeper and a former nursemaid, sacrificed everything for his education, and he is acutely aware of his awkward position between the classes. When called to the hall, Faraday is shocked by the state of decay. There is no longer an army of servants, just Betty, a teenaged maid complaining of a stomachache. She turns out to be faking in the hope of being sent away from the spooky house.
After “treating” Betty, Faraday is invited to stay for tea, and to his surprise, becomes friends with the Ayres family. Roderick, the young master, is a veteran still pained by injuries from a plane crash. Caroline, his older sister, is charming but considered too plain and odd to marry off. The widowed Mrs. Ayres mourns both her eldest daughter, who died of diphtheria, and the lost splendor of Hundreds Hall. While Faraday is flattered by their acceptance, he also feels flashes of resentment whenever their sense of entitlement comes up.
Soon after Faraday arrives on the scene, things begin going wrong at Hundreds Hall. A gentle dog attacks a child for no apparent reason. Mysterious scorch marks appear on the walls. Roderick, already stressed from managing the estate, becomes convinced that something in the house is out to get the family. And he seems to be right. As disaster after disaster strikes, Faraday pigheadedly dismisses the supernatural, even when his “rational explanations” are more of a stretch. We find that our narrator may not be the good country doctor we have been presented with.
The tension of the The Little Stranger comes from a sense of doom that pervades the novel, along with Waters’ seeming reluctance to pinpoint the cause of destruction. Is it a poltergeist? The ghost of the dead daughter? Is someone unconsciously sabotaging the household? You don’t know what’s wrong; you just want the family to get out before it’s too late.