BOOK REVIEW: THE TURN OF THE SCREW BY HENRY JAMES

Title: Turn of the Screw || AuthorHenry James || Audiobook Narrator: Flo Gibson || Genre:  Classic, Gothic, Supernatural, Paranormal ||Year of publication: 1898 || No. of pages: 124|| Available at Amazon.com and Bol.com


James’s great masterpiece of haunting atmosphere and unbearable tension, tells of a young governess sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans, Miles and Flora. Unsettled by a dark foreboding of menace within the house, she soon comes to believe that something, or someone, malevolent is stalking the children in her care. Is the threat to her young charges really a malign and ghostly presence, or a manifestation of something else entirely?

(synopses courtesy of penguin books)

I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?

It should come as no surprise that this novella is acquired taste and is only a satisfying read for those who like their spooky stories slightly eerie, atmospheric and with an ambiguous ending. Ultimately it was this tales ambiguity that made it truly fascinating. The mere fact that the Governess’ point of view is the only one the reader has at his/her disposal to determine if, there is a haunting to speak off or that our narrator is simply imagining things, is enthralling enough to keep you turning pages. However, what makes this gothic novella ingenious is, that whatever the reader decides is going on … will in fact hold up, no matter how many times one re-reads this story.

Because I approached this story with a contemporary perspective, the main characters, although mostly likable, took some getting used to and were at times hard to visualize.

  • The young Governess, or main narrator, is a very serious caretaker and does everything in her power to protect Miles and Flora from evils anybody in their right mind would walk away from. While she seems intelligent and sane for the most part, you can’t help but to question the poor woman’s mental health. She is in fact the only one who confirms to actually see the apparitions. While at times she strikes me as strong-willed, she also seems to be very impressionable. I couldn’t believe that the Governess had serious doubts that Miles and Flora were incapable of mean spirited behavior and based this on how ethereally beautiful these children looked. While we all might have given someone a pass on the count of pretty privilege, we can all agree that this trait definitely makes you unsuitable to be the caretaker of anybody’s children. Anyways in the end, when the children are acting up, those pesky ghosts bear the brunt of the blame.
  • Mrs. Grose, a long time housekeeper at Bly, is the one person the Governess entrusts with her ghost stories. Throughout the story it doesn’t become clear where her loyalty lies, but it’s clear she loves the children very much and is protective of them. From my contemporary perspective this woman just wants to hold on to her job and needs to pay her rent. This is probably the main reason she is willing to listen to the Governess rattling one about things that go bump in the night.
  • Miles, is ten years old and one of the children the Governess is responsible for. He is expelled from school but the note which states this, doesn’t reveal why. Although the boy behaves immaculately for the most part, the Governess does not immediately trust Miles because of this letter. As the story progresses and Miles and the Governess develop a somewhat odd relationship, she becomes more and more convinced that the boy is under the influence of the malevolent spirit of Peter Quint (ghost nr. 1).
  • Flora, is eight years old and is as beautiful and pleasant as her name would have you imagine. This is why the Governess’ initial impression of Flora is mostly positive. As the story progresses her opinion of little Flora shifts, because she suspects the girl is a tad bit sneaky and of course under the influence of Mrs Jessel (ghost nr.2).

“Why, of the very things that have delighted, fascinated, and yet, at bottom, as I now so strangely see, mystified and troubled me. Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It’s a game,” I went on; “it’s a policy and a fraud!”
“On the part of little darlings—?”
“As yet mere lovely babies? Yes, mad as that seems!” The very act of bringing it out really helped me to trace it—follow it all up and piece it all together. “They haven’t been good—they’ve only been absent. It has been easy to live with them, because they’re simply leading a life of their own. They’re not mine—they’re not ours. They’re his and they’re hers!”
“Quint’s and that woman’s?”
“Quint’s and that woman’s. They want to get to them.”

Truth be told, I am not always in need of CSI approved evidence to state my case but the way this Governess jumped to conclusion on virtually every page, was truly next level. It also was the most entertaining part of this story. Cause was this woman perfectly sane and incredibly perceptive or merely delusional and in need of a life? That being said, in defense of the Governess and as a mother of two, I have to admit that when children are as well behaved as Miles and Flora (to the level of nausea) usually something is up. But malevolent ghosts?!

Picture of movie poster of The Haunting of Bly Manor and the e-book cover of the turn of the screw

At the beginning of this endeavor I had a hard time engaging with the material. At first I thought it had everything to do with the outdated use of the English language, but at the same time this was to be expected from a novel written in 1898. A few chapters in, I figured this couldn’t be the case, cause to be honest I liked the overly polite way in which the characters expressed themselves and made the most uncomfortable of events sound like a walk in the park on a bright sunny day. Furthermore I tend to listen to the audiobook as I read the text and I couldn’t help but to appreciate the glorious turn of phrase and the posh pronunciation of these antiquated sentences. Eventually it dawned on me that the way in which Henry James stuffed sentences within sentences was the main culprit. He, more often than not, took the scenic route instead of cutting to the chase. Although he does this in such a manner that it adds to the story, for me, as a non-native English speaker it all felt a tad bit convoluted and at times unnecessarily complicated things.

Since I picked up this novella in preparation of Netflix’s upcoming adaptation “The Haunting of Bly Manor”, I had an incentive to push through. So anytime I felt that my comprehension of the material might be lacking, I re-read the SparksNotes summary of several chapters and was often immediately assured that I had a keen understanding of what the author was trying to convey. Luckily, my effort was rewarded with a satisfying pay off …

As stated earlier, I had a bit of a problem visualizing what was on the page. This is why I subjected myself to a visual adaptation, of which there are probably a gazillion. My weapon of choice was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and this viewing experience filled in every conceivable blank. I have no doubt (even after watching The Haunting of Bly Manor) that Jack Clayton’s version is the most faithful adaptation out there.

While I don’t shy away from the occasional supernatural horror novella, they are usually not of the gothic variety. When it comes to gothic ghost stories, more often than not the creep-factor is not anywhere near the level I like it to be. To be honest “the Turn of the Screw” is no exception to the aforementioned, but in this instance “not being creepy enough” wasn’t a deal breaker for me. In fact, whatever motivated the actions of the possibly “unstable” Governess, the precociousness of the children and the maybe existence of malevolent spirits, were elements enthralling enough to keep things interesting. The true strength of this novel lies in the fact that what truly happened remains undetermined, it’s the main reason the story gets under your skin and lingers in your mind.

Verdict = ☆☆☆

As it turns out there is a lot more to this eerie ghost narrative than I initially anticipated and therefor this resulted in an unexpectedly pleasurable reading experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s