Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The story begins sat around the fire on a winter’s night, telling each other ghostly tales. One gentleman Douglas, along with much ado, recounts the story of a governess he once knew. Upon taking up her first residence, strange things begin to happen at Bly and this is the eerie account of what she experienced.

All horror stories are a little silly in their own way but 19th Century literature seems to capture the quintessential ghost story so well. The Turn of the Screw is no different. It is haunting in a subtle and suggestive way, rather than in the modern ‘slap-you-in-the-face-with-lots-of-blood-and-gore’ kind of way. It uses your own mind to unsettle you, providing you let it suck you in. That is the key of course, letting it take you on its journey and allowing it to worm its way into the perhaps less confident parts of your mind. It doesn’t aim to frighten you as such (that emotion is much too vulgar for well brought up ladies and gentlemen) but rather, works to titillate and seduce you to uneasiness and leave you awake in the night, wondering about the lurking possibilities. It is easy to see how the governess’ tale works for Douglas as he sits by the roaring fire, drinking brandy (such a ‘Raven’-esque scene), especially with all the theatrics he brings with it.

The bare bones of the tale, of course, are not scary but it is the evocative play and the general atmosphere that is lingering. It is so easy to picture, albeit in an almost cheesy but endearing ghost-story kind of way – all wraith-like pale visions and unearthly howls. We can all, too, imagine how we would jump at the sudden pale face, staring in through the window with creepy purpose. The children in Miss’ charge are chilling as well, with their adult like demeanour and speech patterns. They reminded me somewhat of the children from the Village of the Damned – cold, strong, and wise beyond their years. Children who are not quite what they seem are enough to make anyone shiver. Whatever happened to sweetness and light?

I also love 19th Century narrative for its beauty, flow and sheer celebration of words. It makes me want to read aloud in my best ‘lady of the manner’ voice (we’ve all got one – admit it), interspersed with my ‘lowly servant’ drawl. (I do it in my head of course, for fear of looking quite mad. Apart from those times when I am taken by wild abandon…) James does not fail in the narrative. He could be criticised (in fact, has been criticised) for being too verbose, for using more words than are necessary but here, it works. It creates that sumptuous, indulgent feel that only truly great writing can. It’s a big, warm blanket by an open fire, a glass of something delectable, and tasty treats too. It’s like falling into a pit of deliciousness. It’s wordy, and I like it.

In all, this is a fun, haunting-if-you-let-it read that is quick and enjoyable on many levels. I simply hadn’t realised how much I would enjoy James and any story that leaves me with an audible gasp at the end (however naff that may be), is a decent one in my book.

Note: Review first published on Goodreads.

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