The Little Stranger, a Shift in Atmosphere, and the Illumination of Mystery

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Sometimes, as writers, we need to show a shift in atmosphere or mood—but how to describe that? A great technique is to describe the same unchanging thing but in a different way. I think of it as a shift in the sensibility of the character as they respond to the change in the air.

An example occurs in A Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, a delightfully chilling novel about a haunted house, though what precisely haunts it is left a mystery. 

The narrator is Dr. Faraday, a man who considers himself scientific and immune to the fits and fevers he believes explain the "haunting." But he's also quite observant and willing to describe subtle changes in his surroundings or perceptions of them.

In one scene, he tours the gardens with the owner of the house. When he first enters the space, he finds it normal and friendly enough. But after Mrs. Ayres tells him that her long-dead daughter is with her, his experience of the place shifts dramatically.

The doctor's first description is clean and functional:

One or two beds were still relatively well tended by Barrett, but other areas, which must once have been lovely, had been dug over for vegetables by the soldiers during the war, and since then, without the hands to manage them, they had run wild.

There's nothing more ordinary than vegetable beds, after all. The subconscious might notice the potential for chaos in "run wild" and the mention of war, but there's no overt threat.

Later, there's a bit of strangeness, but Faraday's mood remains whimsical: 

The snow lay smooth as foam there, almost silky to the eye, but crisp and powdery underfoot. In places it was broken by the cartoonish tracks of birds, and soon we found more substantial prints, the dog-like pads and claws of creeping foxes.

"Smooth," "foam," "silky," "crisp," and "powder" are all positive in a particular way, making us know that he's comfortable, both relaxed and alert. "Cartoonish" is as non-threatening a description of the unnatural as there is. "Creeping" hints at the eerie, but we don't find it alarming because foxes are meant to creep.

Even when describing spooky things, we can tell Dr. Faraday is not frightened:

There the air of general enchantment was even more pronounced, the stable clock still fixed at twenty to nine in that grim Dickensian joke, the stables themselves with their fittings all in place, their doors neatly bolted, but everything thick with cobwebs and dust, so that one half expected, on peeping inside to find a line of slumbering horses, all thick with cobwebs, too. 

Something is "grim," but it's a "joke." There are "cobwebs and dust," but the "fittings all in place" and the doors "neatly bolted." And the doctor is careful to tell us that the rather frightening image of cobweb-covered horses is mere fancy, and only "half expected" at that.

It's important that this description occurs early in the scene. Waters is quietly placing strangeness and potential terror so that she can activate it later. It's also crucial that the still-leashed terror is kept light enough that the reader doesn't notice it too soon. 

Another technique she uses to subtly plant details that will be relevant later is to give them less directly. In this case, Mrs. Ayres tells Dr. Faraday what her deceased husband told her, so the information is third-hand: 

"The Colonel, my husband, used to love these gardens. They're arranged as a sort of spiral, each one smaller than the last, and he used to say they were like the chambers of a sea shell. Such a fanciful man sometimes."

It's key that we know that the gardens are shrinking before Dr. Faraday actively notices it. If he were to independently mention this, it would be hard not to feel them shrinking. But when an outside voice claims it—one not even present—it can be trivia instead of subtext. Then we can remember it, suddenly, when we need it later, and we can have the creepy sensation that we did know it, somehow, all along.

Now look at what happens after Dr. Faraday learns about Mrs. Ayres's daughter: 

I stood frozen for a moment, not knowing what to do. A few minutes before, the little garden had appeared almost snug to me. Now the small walled patch, with its single narrow exit leading only to another choked and isolated space, seemed filled with menace. The day, as I have said was a peculiarly still one. No wind disturbed the branches of the trees, no bird rose, even, in the thin, chill air, and if any sound had come, any movement had been made, I would have caught it. Nothing changed, nothing at all—and yet, it began to seem to me that something was there in the garden with us, creeping or edging towards us across the crisp, white snow. Worse than that, I had the bizarre impression that this thing, whatever it was, was in some way familiar: as if its bashful advance towards us was more properly a return. I felt the flesh of my back rise, anticipating a touch—as in a childish game of tig. I drew my hands from hers, and twisted round, looking wildly all about me. 

The doctor never concedes that he believes there is a ghost or even that his surroundings have changed. In fact, he emphasizes that nothing has changed. Still, the tone of the description is clearly different.

It's not a fox that creeps but "something" he can't or won't name. Is it the daughter? Or is it just his own skin? (The reader's might also be acting strangely.) And that "choked and isolated space" that is "filled with menace"—we knew it was choked (those overgrown gardens, the spiral pattern that makes the enclosures get smaller), we knew it was isolated (so much unmarked snow)—but this is the first we've understood the menace in that. I notice, particularly, the use of the words "creeping" and "crisp," making us remember that earlier look at the place and the strangeness that was not yet ominous. 

The doctor later dismisses his reaction, even claiming his alarm was for his companion and her mental state rather than because of any supernatural force. But even if the doctor believes this explanation, the reader is free to draw other conclusions. 

In some stories, the character might not remark so clearly upon a change in the atmosphere. Rather, the description might shift in subtle ways that only the reader would notice. Often that's the right choice for the story. But I think Waters is wise to have this particular character notice what it happening to his mood, his mind, and his experience. 

It means he never has to be coy. Dr. Faraday tells us all he knows, and the only things left out are what he can't know. We can learn the eerie effects of the (maybe) ghost, even without confirming its existence.

For this reason, it's a great example of illuminating a mystery. A beginner creates mystery by keeping secrets from the reader, but Waters creates hers by holding back nothing that the narrator knows. There is no contriving to keep us in the dark. Rather, we get every bit of information that the narrator gets—including every feeling or sensation related to the mystery. There is strangeness and there is that which is unknowable—but the narrator holds a candle right up to it. When we wonder, we wonder with the narrator. 

All of this happens because of the shifting description of a single place and the narrator's willingness to comment on it. Because we are able to feel the difference in atmosphere at the mention/presence of a ghost, we can experience the haunting of the house in much the same way as the characters. We don't have to get the answer as long as the mystery itself is as clear as possible and alive in physical sensation.


For a more in-depth exploration of character sensibility, sign up for Allison's class, Sense(s) and Sensibility, which will take place Saturday, April 18, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.