Definitions, I’m learning, are often a matter of one’s experience and taste. I’ve read a lot of gothic novels and have tried to pinpoint what it is that creates a gothic feel for me. I say “for me” because other people sometimes suggest works that I would put into a different category. In any case, it’s clear that The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a gothic novel by any measure. A large, isolated house. A tainted family slowly fading away. A remorseless, 400-page winter. Inevitable decay. The story is ambiguous and moody as Dr. Faraday, the narrator, falls in love with Caroline Ayres, the only daughter of an aristocratic family in decline. The house may be haunted. Or the family may be breaking down mentally. Like The Turn of the Screw, it’s up to the reader to decide.
My preferred gothic has elements of the supernatural in it. Melancholy without existential threat isn’t really enough to tip the scale for me. The Little Stranger has enough of both to keep the reader guessing right up to the end. Reader-response theory—the underlying basis for what’s being called “reception history”—posits that the reader assigns meaning. The author has her idea of what happened in mind, but the reader contributes their own understanding. This idea has influenced my own writing. Once a piece is published the readers will make of it what they will. In this way I can read Little Stranger as a haunted house story. Although it was made into a movie I have to confess that I only heard of the novel recently while searching for gothic novels I might’ve missed.
The ambiguity fits the ambiguity of life. The same circumstances can be interpreted by one person as entirely natural while another will add a super prefix. No one person has all the answers and reality can be a matter of interpretation. In that way Sarah Waters’ art follows life. Interestingly, religion plays very little role in the story. Church, when it appears, is perfunctory. The source of tension here is on a rational, medical interpretation of events versus the gloomy lived experience of the Ayres family. They believe themselves haunted and the scientific answers have difficulty convincing readers that there’s nothing more going on. This is a gothic novel with a capital G. Nevertheless, the debased cleric would have been welcome, but you can’t have everything.