The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s that time again: due to life in general and reading-related issues, I’m taking us back to two posts a week for the foreseeable. They will appear on Mondays and Fridays. Sorry & thanks for your continued interest!


Not sure what prompted me to take in this classic – it might have been The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

randomly chosen atmospheric cover (I read a free ebook from Project Gutenberg)

I didn’t have a terribly successful read, but now I know. I’m going to say that this one didn’t age as well as some writers of James’s era. Two central concerns are sentences and what we fear. First, James’s habit of complex syntax and copious strung-together clauses drove me nuts. I found it quite distracting and frequently had to reread to follow the logic of comma-packed sentences. Check out this completely typical (not extreme) example:

At the hour I now speak of she had joined me, under pressure, on the terrace, where, with the lapse of the season, the afternoon sun was now agreeable; and we sat there together while, before us, at a distance, but within call if we wished, the children strolled to and fro in one of their most manageable moods.

There’s a style there that just doesn’t work for me, and I’ll wager works for few modern readers.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even after I’d puzzled through the sentences: The Turn of the Screw is a horror story, but it no longer horrifies. Reading this book was like waiting for the jump scare that never comes. [Spoilers follow, although I’ll not share the ending.] A governess takes charge of two charming children at an impressive country estate: the little girl who is supposed to be her pupil, and the slightly older boy sort of by accident, when he is expelled from boarding school. Our protagonist can’t understand why, because he (like his sister) is perfect, angelic, cherubic, just the sweetest and smartest etc., etc. But then she has a few sinister sightings of two individuals, man and woman, who turn out to be the ghosts, respectively, of a former servant and the last governess. These two committed the incredible sin of having a romantic and sexual relationship even though they were not only unmarried but (gasp) of different social backgrounds. The idea of who is a “gentleman” (and how we can tell by looking at him) is of great importance. Perhaps you can imagine that this just doesn’t impress me; I couldn’t muster any outrage.

The ghosts have some sort of influence over our dear angelic children, who thereby become sinister by association, although they don’t actually do anything bad beyond wandering around unsupervised. This is no Orphan. In general, ho hum.

(There is also an interesting bit of story-within-the-story here: we open with a bunch of Victorians at a country home for a long weekend, where the governess’s story itself is introduced and then read aloud. I’m always intrigued by this narrative device. We never return to the country weekend, so it doesn’t perhaps do the work it might have done for this book.)

My friend Vince teaches a class on horror films and literature, and he could speak to all of this more effectively than I can, but I recall him saying something about how different eras in horror reflect what we feared at a societal level at each point in time. Here, James is clearly concerned with the innocence of children (and the terrifying lack thereof), and class distinctions. That’s my fairly surface-level read, and frankly, it’s as deep as I feel motivated to go. My friend Liz points out that Stephen King has “ruined” (depending on your position) all the horror that came before, by figuring how how to really terrify us. She’s probably right, too. She cites Frankenstein: the modern reader approaches that classic novel looking for a fright that just never surfaces. I’d say that’s a finer novel than this one, though.

Somewhat in James’s defense, I did finish this novella, after faltering in the middle, because I wanted to see what happened. That’s good for something. The ending held a note of some profundity. Still can’t recommend it, except as an act of completionism, if you want to get a good historical grasp of this genre. Next challenge: what horror story of a similar era is still scary?


Rating: 6 commas, which (on theme) might be one too many, but credit for James’s long influence.

2 Responses

  1. ugh. Never wanted to go there.
    I recently tried to listen to the audio book that’s a modern version of this story. I couldn’t finish it. Agree with Liz – if I want to be scared, I know where to go.* And enjoy a lot of the narrative in other ways: cultural, historical (e.g., 11/22/63), character qualities, and a well-structured story.

    *Not that there aren’t other good scare-ers, in contemporary fiction.

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