The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger
(London: Virago, 2009)

[S]he confessed to me that, for the past few nights, they had been woken in the early hours of the morning by the ringing of the telephone bell. It had happened three or four times, she said, always between two and three o’clock; and every time, when they had gone down to unhook the receiver, the line had been dead.
They has wondered, at one point, if the caller could be me. ‘You were the only person we could think of,’ Caroline said, who might be up at that sort of time.’ She glanced at her mother, colouring slightly. ‘It wasn’t you, I suppose?’
‘No, it wasn’t!’ I replied. ‘I wouldn’t dream of calling so late! And at two o’clock this morning, as it happens, I was tucked up in bed. So unless I put the call through in my sleep—’
‘Yes, of course,’ she said, smiling. ‘There must have been some sort of muddle at the exchange [….].’

In Sarah Waters’ neo-Forties ghost story, The Little Stranger, the telephone acts as one conduit among many co-opted by the disruptive, apparently supernatural force inhabiting Hundreds Hall, the ancestral home of the Ayres family. In this episode, which sees the daughter of the family, Caroline, seek to explain away the disturbing silent phone calls first by assigning a possible caller, Dr Faraday and then  technical error, Waters draws on the tradition of the malfunctioning telephone as a contemporary gothic motif, the ‘dead’ line of the telephone becoming a line to the dead. The inherently uncanny capacity of the telephone to produce voice without presence is paralleled by Caroline’s indirect invocation of the switchboard operator whose semi-silent, invisible presence facilitated telecommunication up until the 1970s (indeed, later in the novel, the Ayres’ maid, Betty, observes of the operator ‘You don’t hear her speak, but you know hers listening. You know hers there.’). Waters’ novel, set on the eve of the foundation of the NHS and in a dilapidated stately home whose boundaries are being encroached by the erection of new council housing, is a story haunted by social change. These passing references to the switchboard operator, the medium through which other voices might penetrate the space of the private home, contribute to the exploration of shifting class structures in the late 1940s.

by Lucy Arnold