The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
originally published 1898
Buccaneer Books, 1993
Genre: Horror, Gothic novella
Synopsis & Review: Over the Christmas holidays, a man tells a ghost story he’s kept to himself since it was told to him years ago. A young governess, swayed by a handsome employer, goes to a remote country house to take charge of a young orphaned girl. The house and child are beautiful and pleasant, and the housekeeper who is her closest co-worker is a nice, comfortable woman. But when the young boy is expelled from his school without a word about why, the governess must also care for him, and the atmosphere becomes ominous.
The governess soon discovers that both the children’s previous caretakers are dead, and that they were involved in an unsavory way. She also begins to see strange people where they shouldn’t be. And worst of all, the children seem aware of the unwholesome presences–and even to welcome them. Beneath the peaceful facade of the house and the innocent faces of the children lies an immense, unspeakable evil.
The second book I picked up for Dewey’s Read-a-Thon would also have suited RIP IV–but reading it at work was a dreadful mistake. Though many nights at work are very quiet and I can read undisturbed for hours, last Saturday was a nightmare. I don’t think I managed to go even five minutes without a disturbance of some kind. And reading Henry James under such circumstances was maddening. At least it was only eighty-seven pages.
In recent years, I’ve found James impenetrable. I’ve picked up both Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, and not made it very far before putting the book down again, though I did enjoy What Maisie Knew immensely three years ago. In ninth and tenth grade, however, I was enchanted by The Wings of the Dove and Washington Square. What happened?
OMG, so many challenges!
James’ prose–which I know many people find bizarre, confusing, and impenetrable–is eminently suited to the horror novella or short story. James is like an Impressionist, he writes around the being, the intrinsic value of things the way that people comprehend things, not with specific values but with brief flashes of perception. (He doesn’t write “That is a pepper,” because when you look at a pepper, you don’t think that except on the most surface, intentional level. That makes him complex, sometimes difficult, and occasionally a pain in the ass, but also amazing.) The impressionistic style builds an eerie atmosphere, constantly building upon it as the story progresses. It heightens the sensation of dread as it slowly increases throughout the novel. The deliberate ambiguity of the situation–are the children haunted, or the the governess mad?–adds another layer of apprehension as we wonder just how unreliable the narrator is.
There are acres of analysis on both James and The Turn of the Screw, so I won’t burden you with any more. It is a sufficiently frightful tale, and a good challenge for those who haven’t yet tried James because of its short length and relatively quick pace.
Read also: The Ghost-Feeler by Edith Wharton, James’ other ghost stories, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, What Maisie Knew by James
Cover: This was another library bound edition with no cover illustration, so I picked the most lurid cover I saw online (Quint’s chasing her! ZOMGLOL!). Here are some more.
Ack, that little boy’s face is too much!
There was a Sunday—to get on—when it rained with such force and for so many hours that there could be no procession to church; in consequence of which, as the day declined, I had arranged with Mrs. Grose that, should the evening show improvement, we would attend together the late service. The rain happily stopped, and I prepared for our walk, which, through the park and by the good road to the village, would be a matter of twenty minutes. Coming downstairs to meet my colleague in the hall, I remembered a pair of gloves that had required three stitches and that had received them—with a publicity perhaps not edifying—while I sat with the children at their tea, served on Sundays, by exception, in that cold, clean temple of mahogany and brass, the “grown-up” dining room. The gloves had been dropped there, and I turned in to recover them. The day was gray enough, but the afternoon light still lingered, and it enabled me, on crossing the threshold, not only to recognize, on a chair near the wide window, then closed, the articles I wanted, but to become aware of a person on the other side of the window and looking straight in. One step into the room had sufficed; my vision was instantaneous; it was all there. The person looking straight in was the person who had already appeared to me. He appeared thus again with I won’t say greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me, as I met him, catch my breath and turn cold. He was the same—he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining room was on the ground floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood. His face was close to the glass, yet the effect of this better view was, strangely, only to show me how intense the former had been. He remained but a few seconds—long enough to convince me he also saw and recognized; but it was as if I had been looking at him for years and had known him always. Something, however, happened this time that had not happened before; his stare into my face, through the glass and across the room, was as deep and hard as then, but it quitted me for a moment during which I could still watch it, see it fix successively several other things. On the spot there came to me the added shock of a certitude that it was not for me he had come there. He had come for someone else.