Monday, June 1, 2020
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Overly highbrow ghost story
The Turn of the Screw, a novella by American-turned-British author Henry James, was originally published in serial form in 1898 issues of Collier’s Weekly magazine. I’m not sure why it is generally considered a novella, since it is certainly long enough to qualify as a novel. Perhaps amid the oeuvre of Henry James this is a short work, but it is definitely quite longer than it needs to be. Despite being a highly revered example of a Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw proves itself neither horrifying nor entertaining, just rather tedious.
The novella begins with an unnecessary introduction. A group of friends are gathered around a fire exchanging stories. One of them happens to have an extensive manuscript given to him by a former acquaintance, a fictional memoir that makes up the rest of the book. The author of this manuscript, at the time her narrative opens, is a young woman looking for employment as a governess. She receives a peculiar offer from a Londoner to reside at his country estate, called Bly, and educate his niece and nephew, of whose guardianship he has assumed following his brother’s death. The gentleman makes it clear that he rarely if ever visits Bly himself, and he wants the governess to simply handle matters out there without ever bothering him under any circumstances. After having accepted the position, she arrives at Bly and meets her young charges, a girl of eight named Flora and a boy of ten named Miles. Although Miles has been expelled from boarding school for reasons unknown, the two children exhibit unusually angelic behavior—so angelic, in fact, that the governess suspects they may be hiding something.
Since it is common knowledge that this is a ghost story, what they may be hiding should come as no surprise. While the behavior of the children is a little creepy, and the paranormal happenings at Bly are uncanny, neither is by any means frightening. In fact, when apparitions of the dead begin to reveal themselves, the governess and her coworker, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, respond to such terrifying occurrences with remarkably blasé attitudes. They barely feel threatened enough to alter their daily routines. At one point Flora goes missing, and Mrs. Grose is more upset that the little girl went out without her hat than by the fact that a child is missing in an isolated country estate inhabited by spirits of the deceased. In addition to ghosts, another shocking Victorian horror yields its ugly head: a woman who may have fornicated with a man beneath her station. Egads!
Though the title may call to mind a torturous Edgar Allan Poe tale, it’s really just an irrelevant figure of speech that’s uttered twice during the narrative. Unlike Poe (or any number of horror writers of this era—Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert W. Chambers, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Hope Hodgson, H. G. Wells, and so on), James doesn’t realize that horror fiction should be both sufficiently macabre and at least a little fun. Instead, he takes a more Joseph Conrad approach by drowning his tale in pretentious verbiage until all the amusement is smothered out of it.
The introductory fireside scene is not bookended with a conclusion. The story of the governess ends abruptly and quite inconclusively, with many important questions left unanswered. The tepid anticlimax leaves the reader with the feeling that one’s time has been wasted. Given James’s literary reputation, he may very well be one of the English language’s master practitioners of the literary arts, but that doesn’t mean he can write a good ghost story. The Turn of the Screw is a dull and overrated work.
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