The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters)

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1. What is the genre?

Global—Horror > Supernatural

Secondary—Status > Tragic

2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the genre?

Conventions

The monster can’t be reasoned with. It is possessed by the spirit of Evil and is present to devour and annihilate: The monster is an evil force that we’re led to believe emanates from the mind and desires of Dr. Faraday. The monster is never actually seen and  Faraday himself never understands it’s him, so there’s no one or nothing to reason with.

Conventional settings within fantastical worlds: This is a haunted house story, the house being conventional and the haunted part being the fantastical. Even without the haunting, the house, as seen in its time, is something of a fantastical setting for a modern reader.

Labyrinths. Settings are claustrophobic, concealing the dangers within:  Hundreds Hall has lots of dark hallways and locked doors. Most of the house is shut down and closed off from daily use. Many of the rooms are locked and the family lives in a small portion of the house.

Perpetual discomfort. Conceal the monster, attack randomly, never let the audience settle: Unexplainable things happen throughout the story, mainly in the middle build, leaving most of the characters on edge waiting for whatever will happen next.

Sadomasochistic flip-flop. Let the reader experience the power of the monster while empathizing with the victims: It’s easy to empathize with the Ayres as they struggle against the inevitable power of a monster they never know is out to get them until it’s too late.

The monster’s power is masked and progressively revealed: The monster is never entirely revealed, only hinted at, but the clues build up to convince the reader that the monster springs from Dr. Faraday’s angry and repressed thoughts.

Keep the monster off-screen for as long as possible: The monster is never technically onscreen until you realize at the end it’s been emanating from Faraday all along.

Have the audience experience the horrific at a remove:  None of the attacks is ever shown to the reader. They’re all told to the reader after the fact and are often told to or pieced together and then told by Faraday after the events have occurred.

Obligatory Scenes

An inciting attack by a monster. A single non-heroic protagonist is thrown out of stasis, forced to pursue a conscious object of desire: Caroline’s gentle Labrador, Gyp, uncharacteristically mauls young Gillian Baker-Hyde permanently disfiguring her face. Gyp’s eventual destruction is hardest on Caroline.

Speech in Praise of the Monster: The Ayres often speak in praise of Dr. Faraday, who becomes a family friend and is later engaged to Caroline. Several scenes could work here as the family calls on Faraday to come to their aid.

Protagonist at the mercy of the monster: Caroline is heard to utter the word “You” before her fatal fall implying the monster is an evil force emanating from Dr. Faraday and all he represents and from which she can never escape.

The protagonist becomes the final victim after a series of “kill-off” scenes of minor characters. Caroline falls to her death after her dog (put to sleep), brother (committed to a mental institution), and mother (suicide from hanging) have all suffered their horrific fates.

False Ending: Caroline says “whatever was in the house is gone” after her mother’s death, though whatever was in the house comes back to cause Caroline herself to fall to her death.

Learn more about obligatory scenes and conventions.

3. What is the point of view and narrative device?

First person, narrated by Dr. Faraday, an antagonist who is never aware he’s the antagonist.

Learn more about point of view.

4. What are the objects of desire?

External/Conscious—The Ayres want to survive whatever is haunting their house, which represents the seat of their family’s standing in British society.

Internal/Sub-Conscious—The Ayres need to accept and adapt to the rise of the post world war II professional class.

Learn more about objects of desire.

5. What is the controlling idea / theme?

A fate worse than death results for a British gentry family when a status seeking doctor convinces them to maintain former glory instead of adapting to a changing postwar society.

Learn more about controlling ideas.

6. What is the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff?

Beginning Hook: When Caroline Ayres’ gentle Labrador, Gyp, uncharacteristically bites the face of young Gillian Baker-Hyde and news spreads throughout the county, the Ayres must decide whether to destroy Gyp or fight the demands of the Baker-Hydes and public opinion. Mrs. Ayres asks Dr. Faraday to put Gyp to sleep and he reluctantly does so.

Middle Build: When the “infection” in the house that led to Rod being committed affects Mrs. Ayres, and Faraday wants to commit her too, Caroline must decide whether to let Faraday take her mother to a public institution or to take her away from Hundreds Hall. After first agreeing with Faraday, she decides too late to take her mother away and Mrs. Ayres hangs herself before Caroline can take her to safety.

Ending Payoff: When Caroline, preparing to sell Hundreds, unexpectedly falls to her death, an inquiry must determine if her death was a suicide due to an unsound mind or something supernatural. The inquiry decides suicide and the Ayres name is forever tainted while Hundreds Hall is reduced to the setting of a ghost story the children in the county tell each other.

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