A Horrorshow of Class Politics

Still from “The Little Stranger”

Opening at theaters nationwide today, “The Little Stranger” is a most unusual blend of class politics and Stephen King-type horror set in a shabby manor house in England called The Hundreds just after the end of WWII. Once home to wealthy aristocrats of the Ayres clan, the 18th century estate now finds itself in the mid-20th century occupied by descendants who are aristocrats in name only. For reasons never detailed in the film, they are barely scraping by economically and the dilapidated house shows it.

The matron of the house, only referred to as Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), lives there with her two grown children, Roderick (Will Poulter, who is referred to as Roddy except by those beneath him socially) and Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who tries to keep the sprawling house in decent shape—a hopeless task. Once served by a staff of over a dozen, the Ayres only have Betty to serve them now, a teenager from the nearby village that is so spooked by the British version of Count Dracula’s castle that she feigns illness just so that she can get away from The Hundreds for a week or so—and maybe even permanently. Betty, you see, is convinced that The Hundreds is haunted.

The Ayres summon the village doctor to look at Betty, one Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who like the family matron is never mentioned by his first name. Like Betty, he was a villager who grew up in a working-class family. But unlike Betty, he managed to join the middle class mostly because of the sacrifices made by his parents who died young because of overwork. His mother was a maid at The Hundreds who brought him there in 1919 to celebrate Empire Day with the Ayres who were in their heyday. As the name implies, this holiday was created to inculcate children with the belief that they belonged to a glorious Empire, including those in Kenya, India and elsewhere.

In a flashback we see Faraday being escorted that day by his mother past a tricolored cordon that was meant to prevent the riffraff from venturing into the mansion. The Ayres were all for Imperial solidarity with the commoners but letting them inside The Hundreds was out of the question.

The young Faraday is left to wander around the mansion on his own, staring in awe at the massive rooms, paintings and opulent furniture. Then and there, he falls in love with The Hundreds and decides to keep a souvenir of his visit. He snaps off an ornamental acorn from the frame of a great mirror and conceals it in his pocket. When his mother discovers that he has purloined a piece of her employer’s great house, she slaps him in the face to remind him of their class position.

If Betty’s illness was made up, Roddy’s is both genuine and debilitating. During the war, his plane was shot down, leaving him badly disabled. One side of his face is scarred from burns in the crash and he drags an unhealed leg behind him. In a subsequent visit to The Mansions, Faraday proposes that he use a heat treatment to restore the leg to health. He has an ulterior motive, to spend time in the house that mesmerized him as a young boy. Even though its glory days are long past, he feels elevated in its shabby but elegant interior. Another ulterior motive is that it gives him the chance to spend time with Caroline, who he has become fond of.

Dr. Faraday is one of the most powerful characters I have seen in a film in years. His ambivalence toward those above him socially leads to inner conflicts that are beyond his power to resolve because he lacks the very thing that would make that possible: understanding the class distinctions that remained in force at The Hundreds no matter the poverty of its current inhabitants. He longs to be part of a world that is rapidly vanishing even though the Ayres themselves, particularly Roddy, are trying to figure out how to unload this mammoth drain on what’s left of their fortune.

Not only are the Ayres subject to the vicissitudes of declining wealth, they also become convinced like Betty that The Hundreds is haunted, specifically by a poltergeist that has been triggered by the death from diphtheria at an early age of Susan, Caroline and Susan’s older sister. Bells, once used to summon the servants to the upper floors, now ring mysteriously in the middle of the night all on their own. When Mrs. Ayres visits a room once occupied by Susan, the door slams behind her and she is gripped by a feeling that Susan’s unhappy ghost is about to attack her. There are no special effects in “The Little Stranger” because none are needed. We are in the presence of what might be a collective psychosis of the Ayres who while not responsible for Susan’s death, are like many characters in British and American tales about the aristocracy—cursed by their great fortunes. The closest relatives to this film are Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw”. Indeed, the film evokes many other classic tales including those written by the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens.

“The Little Stranger” is based on the novel of the same name written by Sarah Waters, who adapted it into the screenplay and thus had a deep interest in remaining faithful to the source. Deeply impressed by the power of this film, I picked up a copy of “The Little Stranger” and can testify to the seamlessness of the adaptation. Waters is best known for her novels about gay and lesbian life but has always been a fan of ghost stories so much so that she wrote one herself. No accolade ranks higher than Stephen King naming it the best book he read in 2009:

This is a terrifying, engrossing ghost story set in the English countryside not long after World War II, but it’s so much more. The ghost haunting Hundreds Hall may or may not be real, but the malevolence Waters evokes is unquestionable, and the first evil manifestation — involving an unpleasant little girl and a normally good-natured dog — is an authentic shocker. Although told in straightforward prose, this is a deeply textured and thoughtful piece of work. Several sleepless nights are guaranteed.

Waters has a Ph.D. from the University of London with a dissertation on “Wolfskins and togas: lesbian and gay historical fictions, 1870 to the present”. While researching novels as part of her research, she was inspired to write fiction herself. Based on the evidence of “The Little Stranger”, we should thank our lucky stars she abandoned academia. Wikipedia states that she was a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and has politically always identified herself as on the left. While “The Little Stranger” is by no means an overtly political film, it certainly is informed by a deep understanding of class relations and the toll it takes on both oppressed and oppressor.

The film was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who has an MA in theoretical physics from Trinity College in Dublin and who was offered a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy at Stanford. It should be obvious that the brainy creative team responsible for this great film have little in common with their Hollywood counterparts. England might be declining just like The Hundreds but it fortunately hasn’t had an effect on literature or film.

Perhaps the only criticism that can be made of the film is that it underemphasizes the class distinctions so prevalent in the novel. You certainly are aware of them but nothing ranks with the tirade delivered by Roddy just before he is committed to a mental hospital to be cured of his belief in ghosts. Since Dr. Faraday has been instrumental in finding him incompetent, much of the fury will be directed at him.

When the Ayres are discussing sales of some of their land to the riffraff in his presence, the arriviste Dr. Faraday, who dreams of The Hundreds being preserved like a prehistoric insect in amber, voices his disappointment. When Mrs. Ayres refers to potential buyers being kept away from the mansion by a fence in the same fashion as the cordon on Empire Day, Roddy refers to them sardonically as “pirates”. Although casting aspersions on his mother and sister for their class prejudices, he reveals his own biases as well: “Yes, we must have a fence to keep out the mob. Not that that will stop them, mind. They’ll soon be scaling the walls of the house at night, with cutlasses between their teeth. You’d better sleep with a pistol under your pillow, Caroline!”

When Caroline peevishly rejects the notion that they are pirates, Roddy escalates his rhetoric and reveals the deepest fears of an aristocracy in decline: “I think they’d like nothing better than to hang us all from the mainbrace; they’re just waiting for Attlee to give them the word. He probably will, too. Ordinary people hate our sort now, don’t you see?”

His mother chimes in, assuring son, daughter and their middle-class admirer Dr. Faraday that nobody in Warwickshire, where The Hundreds was located, “hates our sort”. This prompts Roddy to bitterly reply: “Oh, especially in Warwickshire! Over the border, in Gloztershire [a made up name], they’re still feudal at heart. But Warwickshire people have ways been good business people—right back to the days of the Civil War. They were all for Cromwell then, don’t forget. Now they can see which way the wind is blowing. I wouldn’t blame them if they decided to chop off our heads! We’ve certainly put up a pretty poor show of saving ourselves.”

Since “The Little Stranger” was a narrative film rather than a documentary, it was beyond the scope of the film to explain why the Ayres became impoverished. This was not just the collapse of a family but a significant section of the ruling class that historian Robert Brenner credits with the origins of capitalism in England going back to the 14th Century.

For an analysis from a left historian about its collapse, you will likely find no better treatment than David Cannidine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Like Dr. Faraday, Cannidine came out of the working class as he explains in the preface: “As a lower-middle-class product of the Welfare State, educated at grammar school and Oxbridge, I come from a social group generally  renowned for its conservatism, its deference, its loyalty to hierarchy, and its acquiescence in the status quo. That I should choose to write  of those much higher up the social scale than myself is no more (but also no less?) remarkable or significant than the fact that uppermiddle-class historians should be among the foremost writers of the  lives of the labouring masses.”

Cannadine argues that the Liberal Party under Gladstone that ruled England between 1868 and 1894 reflected the ascendancy of urban, professional and manufacturing sectors of the bourgeoisie that sought to modernize the country and make it more competitive. This meant enacting reforms that would benefit the working class such as universal education that hardly interested a landed gentry that did not require its servants and farm hands to be literate.

To fund such programs, the Liberal Party enacted taxes that cut into the fortunes of landlords like the Ayres. From the 1880s onwards, estates like The Hundreds were no longer being built. Like dinosaurs, evolution had passed them by. Cannadine writes:

The scale of this territorial transfer was rivalled only by two other landed revolutions in Britain this millennium: the Norman Conquest and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Put another way, this meant that the British landed establishment was in the process of dissolving itself, as it lost its unifying sense of territorial identity, and relaxed its dominant grip on the land. Of course, this was not a uniform process: poor patricians succumbed more easily than rich; the indebted were more vulnerable than those with unencumbered estates. In Ireland and Wales, the landowners virtually disappeared; but in England and Scotland, they survived more tenaciously. Yet whatever the qualifications, the fact remains that the dominant trend was no longer accumulation but dissolution. It was not just, as in former times, that a few families were selling out for strictly personal reasons, to be replaced by other landed dynasties. Between the onset  of the Great Depression and the outbreak of the Second World War, the British patricians, as the landowning class and as the wealth elite, were in decline, disarray, and dissolution.

Effectively, “The Little Stranger” depicts the end product of a century long process of decay and at the same time gives you a spine-tingling horror tale that is pure entertainment. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.