Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Genre: Gothic/Victorian
Pages: 172 (paperback)
Published: 1898

Henry James, a master of haunting atmosphere and riveting tension, presents one of the most famous ghost stories of all time. A young governess is sent to a country home to take charge of two orphans, and unsettled by a sense of intense evil within the house, becomes obsessed with the belief that malevolent forces are stalking the children in her care. Growing increasingly uneasy, she becomes drawn into a frightening battle against an unspeakable evil that may or may not be real.
 I was almost entirely unfamiliar with this admittedly well-known classic ghost story before reading The Turn of the Screw. I've seen the Nicole Kidman movie it inspired, The Others, but otherwise came into this not knowing what to expect.  The Woman in Black (which I someday might review) is one of my favorite short horror novels.  It isn't Victorian, but it is set in that time period and shares some of the same eerie psychological horror with Turn of the Screw-- but this little book turned out to be far better.

So, the story is a story within a story-- a guy at a party tells a story about a ghost story which he has written down by a woman he once knew to someone, presumably Henry James.  So, metafiction-- and for the rest of the book this doesn't come up again.  The protagonist and first-person narrator after the prologue is a young governess, the daughter of a parish priest.  She goes to the country estate of Bly (and how might one pronounce this??) to take care of two children at the behest of their always-absent-on-business uncle.  We never learn this governess's name or much about her, already evoking a sense of mystery and, well, vagueness. 

The two children, Flora and Miles, who the governess must look after fit the Victorian ideal of children: they are angelic in both appearance and behavior, bright and determined to please.  Our narrator is happy in her new position-- until she begins to see a strange man, a man who she instinctively feels to be evil, around the grounds of Bly. 
When she tells the housekeeper what she has seen, the terrified woman identifies the man by the governess's description: he is Peter Quint, a man who once worked for the estate and who apparently spent a lot of time with young Miles.  Soon after the terrifying appearance of Quint, a second ghost-- the ghost of the governess's predecessor at Bly-- appears.  The governess, never once doubting her instinctual feeling that these apparitions want nothing more than to hurt her innocent young charges, seeks a way to protect them from the spectors and the corruption she associates them with.  

I don't think it is much of a spoiler to add that there are two main readings of The Turn of the Screw, as you might guess from just reading the synopsis: A. this is a true ghost story, and the governess, having perfectly identified the ghosts of people she had never met, is correct in that these spectors are trying to lead the children to their own deaths (and possibly corrupt them as well).  Reading B: the governess is paranoid, to the point of halluncinating the apparitions, and possibly insane; she creates malevolent figures where in fact there are none, for various psychological reasons.  I lean towards reading B, though I don't have a satisfying explanation for how the governess knew what Quint and Miss Jessel, the other ghost, looked like.  The character of Mrs. Grose-- the housekeeper-- seems suspect in this: maybe she matched the governess's vague descriptions of the apparitions to those of Quint and Jessel because she had always thought them to have sinister intentions.  The thing is, there are several occasions when the governess sees the ghosts and points them out hysterically to the children or to Mrs. Grose, and nobody else sees anything.  Maybe a "meeting point" between the two readings is that Jessel and Quint did corrupt the two children-- the boy and the girl-- before their deaths, and their dark influence lingers, though they are not ghosts, in the sometimes bizarre behavior of the children.  Miles in particular turns out to be much less angelic than he first appears to be...

The governess's conviction towards the nature of the ghosts has the reverse effect of causing the reader to be skeptical of their existence.  Anyway, so I really enjoyed this book.  And yet, halluncinations or not, these ghosts are more frightening to me than the ones which populate 21st century horror movies.  The description of the "pale face" of the ghost of Quint looking in through the window at the children having dinner is beyond eerie-- oh, that scene beat out only by the one with Miss Jessel by the governess's writing desk!  And I feel like I'm spewing spoilers again, but point being, there are some truly eerie scenes.  

The Turn of the Screw succeeds as a ghost story and as an interesting character study...the ambiguity of the supernatural elements and the governess's identity is great and, actually, a little bit maddening.  The ending came as a shock to me, to say the least.  Not sure how I missed the million BBC adaptations of this, but I'm glad I did-- this thin pageturner packed with heavy ambiguity and a great deal of creepiness was a unique reading experience.

My rating:

1 comment:

Charlene C said...

I enjoyed reading this book as well! I didn't know it inspired The Others! I'll have to revisit that movie. Great, detailed review!

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