I had heard Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger was really scary, but it isn't. It is dark and creepy in places, but never so much that I had to stop reading, and I am easily frightened. Instead it's the story of living ghosts -- characters who have outlived their era and who are so unable to adjust to their new reality that they might as well be dead.
In 1950s Britain, the Ayres family (mother, grown daughter Caroline and grown son Roderick) cling to their aristocratic ways in their crumbling mansion Hundreds Hall while all around them the world moves on. Woefully unprepared to make ends meet in the postwar society, they muddle along on some meager farm income while Hundreds Hall literally falls apart over their heads. Roderick tries (with little know-how and even less success) to better their financial situation while mother and daughter try to "make do and mend," but nothing really helps. Their decline is chronicled by their friend Dr. Faraday, a new kind of Briton who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Class issues are front and center in this story.
As if the family doesn't have enough problems, Roderick begins to believe he is being haunted. Strange dreams, unexplainable pranks and mysterious fires dog him. Without giving too much away, the troubles get worse and eventually both mother and daughter also come to believe they are being haunted, possibly by the ghost of the long-dead child Susan, older sister to Roderick and Caroline.
Faraday is something of an unreliable narrator. His first-person observations are clouded by his growing affection for Caroline, his deep feelings of inadequacy, and his lack of an imagination. By placing Faraday as a buffer between the readers and the action, Waters dilutes the scarier aspects of the story; everything we read is filtered through Faraday's unbelieving eyes. I can't decide if this is good or bad. On the one hand, I was glad the story didn't veer into Stephen King territory. On the other hand, having to navigate through Faraday's skepticism and platitudes was sometimes a suspense killer.