“There’s something in this house that hates us,” Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) whispers towards the end of the new film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel The Little Stranger. Waters describes the novel as “a sort of supernatural country house whodunit”, and of all her books, it “is the one right from the heart of me … It’s the book that my 10-year-old self was destined to write. I was really into the gothic as a kid, and loved watching horror films.” So the idea that it has now become a horror film is “incredibly pleasing”.
Set in Warwickshire in the aftermath of the second world war, The Little Stranger shows a world caught between the death of the landed gentry and the birth of modern Britain (a nascent NHS and council housing hover on the horizon). Hilary Mantel called it “a perverse hymn to decay”. Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants, the Ayres family, are haunted by memories of their glory days: Roddie (Will Poulter), a former RAF pilot, physically and mentally scarred by the war; his mother (a regal Charlotte Rampling) still mourning her first child Suki, “my one true love”, who died when she was eight; and daughter Caroline – “a ‘natural spinster’ and ‘a clever girl’” – trying to paper over the cracks. Stomping around in woolly tights and Fair Isle cardies, Wilson does her damndest to pull off frumpiness, but who’s she kidding? “Of course she’s gorgeous,” Waters agrees. “But she’s got an interesting face, which is about as far as the film industry gets towards plainness, isn’t it?”
Then there is the outsider, Dr Faraday (given a chilling edge by Domhnall Gleeson), festering with class resentment and, like Caroline, heading for a lonely middle age. “It can all be explained,” he keeps telling us. The film elegantly captures the novel’s eerie uneasiness and claustrophobia (its director, Lenny Abrahamson, made Emma Donoghue’s literary bestseller Room into an Oscar-nominated film). This is horror in shades of Farrow & Ball. “If people go along expecting a big schlocky horror film they are going to be disappointed. It is much quieter,” Waters says. “It leaves you thoughtful.”
Fans of the book may feel a little cheated at the loss of ambiguity that made the novel so compelling. There won’t be the same disputes among audiences as there were among readers, as the film leaves no doubt as to who the enigmatic “you” is at the end. “You can be much more opaque and allusive on the page,” Waters agrees. “On the screen it tends to be a bit balder.” But she has no misgivings about the ending, which left her with “a great sense of sadness” for her characters, which she hadn’t felt even in the writing.
Waters is no stranger to film adaptations of her work: last year there was the lavishly erotic The Handmaiden, which transported her 2002 novel Fingersmith to 1930s Korea. There was a respectful 2011 BBC version of her fourth novel The Night Watch, and of course Andrew Davies’s “absolutely filthy” 2002 adaptation of her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, which made lesbian sex as much a feature of TV period drama as the Austen ball. “It got my mother using the word dildo, which I think has to be a bit of a victory,” Waters joked at the time. She had a cameo appearance in the series, as she did in the TV adaptation of Fingersmith. “I got to dress up really properly, with the undergarments and everything. It was such a lark.” She doesn’t appear in The Little Stranger, but she was included “at every step” and was very excited to go on set: “It felt a bit awesome really, that my book had spawned this little industry.”
The novel grew from Waters’s research for The Night Watch, a love story told backwards from the 1950s to the blitz, and a departure from her Victorian “romps” as she calls them. “That whole period was so saturated with conversations about class,” she says. “It left me wanting to write another novel with that sort of setting.” But it only began to come to life after a nightmare at the Dartington literary festival. Really? “Yeah, it kind of did. The first time I went, I woke in the night with a screech thinking there was something at the bottom of the bed.” Remembering the dream the next time she went to Dartington Hall, she hit upon the idea of a haunted house novel. And “it all kind of clicked into place”.
“The little stranger” is an old-fashioned expression found in maternity manuals for an unborn child, and she was drawn to the darker implication “that it’s like a thing that you might give birth to that’s not a child, some more troubling emanation”.
She is fascinated by hysteria – “a kind of outdated term now, which is a bit of a shame, because to me it makes lots of sense” – and the idea of externalising inner turmoil (she cites the horrible creatures in David Cronenberg’s The Brood). With this novel, more interested in class than gender, she needed a malevolent spirit to wreak havoc on the house, the site of all these conflicts. Only a poltergeist would do. “Ghosts are a bit boring really, they are just the spirits of dead people,” she says. “Poltergeists don’t really have an identity, they are more like a bundle of bad energy.” And, naturally, they are usually associated with women: “So it’s domestic disturbances, smashing crockery, setting fire to babies’ cradles and things like that. The opposite of things that women were supposed to do.”
As Waters admits, The Little Stranger is “the most atypical of my books because it doesn’t have that lesbian element”. It doesn’t really have any sex at all (the film contents itself with a fumbling hand on a stockinged knee). “It’s a bit scary, as all my lesbian readers will hate me,” she said of the new book she was working on (an embryonic Little Stranger), when I interviewed her in 2006. “Some of my readers really did hate me,” she says. “They felt let down. Somebody wrote an angry letter to a magazine saying she was never going to read me again. I kind of understand that. To feel you are losing somebody who had been your representative.”
What about Caroline? Readers have had their suspicions. “I know. But I honestly didn’t intend her to seem like a lesbian. I don’t think of her as butch. She’s hearty. She’s not glamorous. The 1940s wasn’t a good time for women to be a bit different.”
Her next novel The Paying Guests (2014), set in the inter-war years, more than made up for it. “I wanted it to be the big lesbian love story,” she says. “I wanted to throw everything at it. In the end I put way too much sex in, so I had to take some out.”
It is exactly 20 years since Tipping the Velvet was published and the climate around sexuality and gender is now completely different – a revolution in which Waters’s bestselling novels have no doubt played a part.
Does it feel as important to tell these stories as it did in 1998? “In the period I’ve been writing things have changed so enormously that it doesn’t feel like an urgent project any more, just to put lesbians on the page, just to put lesbians in the past. But of course that’s just the UK, in other parts of the world things are very different.” She has received letters from readers from as far afield as Korea and Australia, saying how much her books have helped them. “There’s still a lot of homophobia and transphobia around. I know people who haven’t told their parents, people living ungay lives as it were. It is easy to forget that it’s not perfect.”
Waters has always been adamant she’s not interested in writing a present-day gay novel. “It’s the last thing I’d want to write about,” she said back in 2006. And today she is happy to leave it to a new generation of novelists – such as Booker-longlisted Sally Rooney – to document contemporary love lives. “Other writers are doing that and will continue to do that.” But even historical fiction needs a different awareness and language; characters from the past whom she would label “lesbian” or “butch lesbian”, for example, another writer might identify as “trans”.
Just this morning, she spotted a tweet about the forthcoming film, saying it really “gets ‘toxic masculinity’”. Such an expression would have been meaningless back in 2009, and besides “masculinity” doesn’t seem very Waters. “I just thought I was writing about that very tired entitlement that men have felt they’ve had over women,” she agrees. “But yeah, that’s toxic masculinity, isn’t it?”
Waters had a “very ordinary”, very happy childhood, in what she calls a lower-middle-class family in 70s Pembrokeshire (she was “a horrible swot” and die-hard Doctor Who fan). But she describes herself as a nervous, anxious child, to the extent that she was given to bed-time rituals, “a bit of a tyranny that went on for years”. A friend recently told her you could guess that she suffers from anxiety from her work, but in person she appears the least neurotic of writers (as well as the most unassuming). “That really intrigues me, the fact that we can pass through the world seeming very calm and sorted and then go home and close the door and be in bits.”
Since turning 50 she has felt more at ease. “For all of my 40s I was really conscious of being an old young person. But suddenly I felt like a young old person and that was much more liberating,” she says. “And I’m quite looking forward to my 60s, because everyone says that in your 60s you are really calm and you don’t have any regrets any more.”
She’s two years into a new novel, “a kind of cousin to The Little Stranger, but with working-class people”. She’s creeping up the century into the 1950s, a decade she associates fondly with her parents. But again she is drawn to the darkness behind a decade “that seemed so sunny”.
Despite her success, she still finds writing “largely torture”. Writers spend so much time on their own, she says, “it is easy to lose confidence.” She is at her desk by 9am. “Starting work every morning is horrible, I hate it,” so she tricks herself with 10 minutes on the Headspace app (“All about focus, that sort of thing”). She has to earn her cup of tea, just one a day or she gets “too excited”. If she works until 4pm, she’s delighted. “That’s with billions of distractions, endless breaks to look at the cat and things like that.” It can’t all be bad? No, the moment “when it is really singing, does make up for the slog of all those days when it feels like you are writing rubbish, day after day after day of getting it wrong before you get it right”. And of course when it is all over: “Starting with nothing, ending with something that has covers on it ... this thing that is alive with a life of its own, hopefully, is just amazing. I still find that amazing.”
On its publication in 2009, The Little Stranger chimed with post-crash Britain. What about 2018? “It is a novel and a film about menace and threat and a deep deep unease. It is about people being kind of stuck,” she pauses. “Oh God, after Brexit is Britain going to be a kind of Hundreds Hall, a decaying place with a big wall around it, with an inflated idea of itself, endlessly trying to keep alive a mythical kind of world?”
• The Little Stranger is released in UK cinemas on 21 September.