- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

By Sarah Waters
Riverhead, $26.95, 480 pages

Hundreds Hall is an English country house that has seen its days of grandeur and is now haunted by nostalgia for a bygone world while a real threat to its continued existence emanates from a mysterious and malevolent force within its walls.

There are hints of the dark anger that pervades Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” in this latter-day gothic masterpiece in which Ms. Waters has dexterously set rigid British class conflicts in a subtly eerie setting. This is no easily defined ghost story, because the evil manifestation is only part of the gradual devastation not only of the memorably named house, but of its occupants who once lived an enviable existence. The author has captured sociological change and woven it into the supernatural. She skillfully portrays the strange and sinister force gathering at Hundreds Hall, where its targets are the remnants of the Ayres family, once privileged and wealthy patrons of the community.

The story of the fall of Hundreds Hall is underscored by the lingering social resentment of Dr. Faraday, a country physician who has vivid memories of the way the great house used to be, as well as the fact that his mother was a servant there.

In his role as storyteller, Faraday recalls,”I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people then.” He describes standing with other village children at an Empire Day fete while Col. and Mrs. Ayres handed out commemorative medals. Most of all he remembers the house that “struck me as an absolute mansion … the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings.”

Most exciting was his being smuggled inside by a servant who was a friend of his mother, and his thrilled reaction to the house’s light and graceful interior, its polished floors, beveled looking glasses and especially a white wall with a decorative plaster border of acorns and leaves. He still recalls how he managed to dislodge one of the acorns and pocket it, disappointed to find that it wasn’t made of marble.

Faraday, whose first name is never mentioned in the book, doesn’t see Hundreds Hall again for 30 years, when he has become a doctor and is called in to attend to a sick maid. And he is horrified by its decay, by the ivy that “hung like tangled rat’s tail hair” from the walls, the weeds sprouting from the front door steps, the garden “a chaos of nettle and bindweed.”

The once immaculate interior has “humped and creaking floorboards,” threadbare and lumpy rugs, and most of the rooms are closed off. The Ayres family now consists of the war-wounded and neurotic Roderick, the still elegant Mrs. Ayres, and her daughter Caroline, whose appearance illustrates the financial problems, with her mended clothes and hands red and roughened by house and garden work. Like many of the upper class who could afford the staff and money it took to run such houses before World War II, the Ayreses are struggling for financial survival.

Their staff is reduced to Betty, a local girl who is the first to confide in the doctor that something is wrong in the house although she cannot be specific about what is frightening her. Yet they won’t give up. As Caroline puts it, quoting her mother, “She said families like ours had a responsibility … to set an example. She said if we couldn’t do that … be better and braver than ordinary people, then what was the point of us?”

It proves a prophetic statement. An electrical treatment for Roderick’s damaged leg gradually makes Dr. Faraday a familiar figure at Hundreds Hall, but he remains an outsider and he is still keenly aware of the fact that his mother was once a servant there. The Ayreses are still the Ayreses, and when they have a dinner party for other local gentry, he is rather awkwardly included. He is promptly asked by another guest whether he is “kept on hand” to help care for Roderick, strengthening his suspicion that he doesn’t fit and will never fit in that milieu despite the social upheaval that succeeded World War II in Britain.

Thus far, Ms. Waters has been carefully and slowly developing her scene and her characters, but the dinner party is where the real nightmare of Hundreds Hall begins. A child guest is bitten by Gyp, the friendly family dog, and her disfigured face leads to the animal being put down by Faraday, at the Ayreses‘ request. The disaster of the dinner is followed by a strange revelation to Faraday by Roderick who insists he is being stalked by “something small and dark dropping from the ceiling like a spider” that uses its powers to make a heavy Victorian shaving glass “inch its way toward him … as if it were discovering its own ability to walk.”

When he puts his hand out to shield himself, the glass “suddenly seemed to gather itself for a spring” and launches itself at his head. “That was the worst thing about it,” Roderick tells Faraday, “I knew it hated me, really hated me beyond any sort of logic or reason.” It is the beginning of the end for Hundreds Hall and those who once lived a happy and prosperous life there.

After Roderick is moved to a hospital, Mrs. Ayres is next to fall victim to the small fury that dominates Hundreds Hall. Most chilling is that what stalks the house is her small daughter Susan, who died of diphtheria more than 20 years earlier. Again, Dr. Faraday is the recipient of terrible confidences when Mrs. Ayres tells him that Susan is “always with her.”

“I feel her watching. I feel her eyes … her eyes are so strong, they can press and pinch. She says where are you? Why won’t you come? I am waiting.” To the doctor, there was “something horribly uncanny about the intentness of her expression.” And he watches with horror as blood seeps from Mrs. Ayres’ chest, penetrating her silk blouse.

When Mrs. Ayres hangs herself from the hook of her bedroom room door that night, Dr. Faraday sees himself as Caroline’s savior. Unfortunately, he also sees himself as her husband. His frail involvement with Caroline collapses when she accuses him of seeing himself as the “squire” of Hundreds Hall and announces she plans to sell the house to escape it. Unsurprisingly, the nerve-racked Faraday has a nervous collapse.

He refuses to accept the truth about the doomed house that has come to mean so much to him. Faraday, who appears to mourn the fate of the grand old house as much as that of its occupants, clings to a yearning for a way of life that he coveted yet knew never could be his. Deep in his mind, he is still the little boy who stole the white plaster acorn from the beautiful moulding. Yet he has no reason to fear the house or its wicked little ghost who has destroyed it and the family. As he finally admits to himself, when he walks Hundreds Hall alone, the only face he sees in its blurred mirrors is his own.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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