Monday, 28 October 2013

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

A group of friends are visiting together at an old house and telling ghost stories when one of them states that he has a story so terrifying it will make all other stories pale in comparison.  It's about a young governess who has been left in charge of Miles and Flora, after the previous governess died.  The children are beautiful, friendly and intelligent and at first, everything seems wonderful.  But then she discovers that Miles has been expelled from his school for unknown reasons and worse still, she starts seeing visions of people who should be dead.   These visions continue and the governess becomes convinced that they have sinister designs on the children, and that only she can protect them.  But is everything as it seems?

I was so looking forward to reading The Turn of the Screw.  It's on my classics club list and I've been saving it for Halloween as that seemed to be the most appropriate time of the year to try it.  I adore gothic fiction, particularly when it has horror elements (Dracula is one of my all-time favourite books) and I also know from reading Daisy Miller that I like James' writing style, so I felt sure I would like it.

Maybe my expectations were simply too high, but I didn't love this book in the way I wanted to.  I liked it well enough, it was a decent read, but it was just missing that spark that would have made it special.  I think a lot of the problem was the deliberate ambiguity.  The governess is the main narrator of the story, and boy is she unreliable.  You never get to find out whether any of her visions are real or indeed what the motivations of any of the characters are.  I do like unreliability and uncertainty in books, but I felt there was just too much of it.  Were the children evil or was the governess simply mad?  Although I have my own favoured interpretation, based on my modern beliefs, it bugged me that James gives us nothing.  And I mean nothing.  I wanted to know what really happened!

The other problem I think the book had is that there was this long build up in which Douglas is basically like "this is the scariest story ever told" and then we have to wait for the manuscript written by the governess to arrive and there's just so much suspense and build up.  Rundown houses, fog, crumbling towers, it's all there and the scariness of the story doesn't measure up to all that build up.  I know scary in classics is very different to modern scary standards, but even so, the book felt like a lot of build up for not much in the way of scary events.

All this isn't to say that I disliked The Turn of the Screw; I still found it engaging, well written and it definitely made me think about what happened.  The more I think about it, the more I come up with new theories and I know that makes James a clever author.  It just wasn't the book I was hoping it would be.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1898
Edition Read: Vintage, 2007
Score: 3 out of 5

 

The Classics Club: Book 18/72

29 comments:

  1. I am actually struggling with the text, even so much that I'm tempted to not finish this. Not sure what is wrong, but I have to focus really hard, and if I have to focus really hard in a ghost/creepy story then there is kinda no tension at all... Maybe something else by James would be better for me, at least I hope I can like him, your experience gives me hope. (I just finished Dracula as well and that was a really good book :) )

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    1. I did enjoy Daisy Miller and it was definitely easier to read than Turn of the Screw. It's short as well, maybe try that one instead?

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  2. I love Henry James...but I don't really like The Turn of the Screw. I never have. And I know everyone says its a classic ghost story, but it's definitely not one of my favorites. It's okay, but it's not wonderful.

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    1. I am glad it's not just me! I'm looking forward to trying Portrait of a Lady.

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    2. That was the first Henry James I ever read and I really loved it; Isabel Archer is such a great character, but my favorite James' novel is probably The Wings of the Dove.

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  3. I haven't read this one yet, but I did see a movie adaptation called I think The Innocents?? My mom always told us it was the scariest movie she has ever seen. And she wasn't lying, it was freaky. Not sure if I want to give the book a try or not.

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    1. I think for it to be that scary the movie would have to go down a certain path and make the ghosts real, which isn't clear from the book. I am dreadful with scary movies though, so I'll stay well away from it! :P

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  4. This sounds pretty creepy! It looks like it had a lot of potential but the build up was all wrong.

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    1. Yes, I think there was just too much build up and not enough action.

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  5. I felt sort of the same way about the Henry James novella I read, "The Aspern Papers." I just thought there would be more to it, but instead it felt like a lot of build-up to an unsatisfying conclusion. :/

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    1. Was it another scary/ghost story? Daisy Miller is another novella of his but more about society and I really liked that one.

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  6. The stinginess of the author will drive me crazy as well. Great review!

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    1. I'm awful for it - I always have to know the answers!

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  7. Ok, I can't read the entire review at the moment because I just started this one and basically know nothing about the storyline. So. I'll be back as soon as I've finished! And, also, I have missed reading your blog. I have been so out of the loop lately so it's nice to come back!

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    1. I've been well out of the blogging loop too, it's only because I've got a week's holiday from work at the moment that I can somewhat interact with people again!
      Let me know what you think of Turn of the Screw when you finish it....

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  8. I was so looking forward to reading this and found myself nonplussed with the whole thing. When I read your first paragraph, I once again, thought how amazing and spooky that story sounds, and that I should probably read it again. As I read on, I realized that you got pretty much what I did out of it. It certainly didn't live up to the hype, did it?

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    1. Yeah, it is a bit of a let down as the story idea is so amazing. It's a shame.

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  9. Sadly, this one bored the crap out of me when I was an undergraduate. I read it, but I didn't love it either.

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    1. It seems to be quite a common reaction....

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  10. Yup, this one is decidedly non-scary and I say that as someone who really doesn't like spooky books. Maybe it was scarier when it was written???

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    1. I think most classics were scarier when they were written, the same as some of them were more controversial.

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  11. I read this one in college and remember next to nothing about it other than I wasn't impressed. So you're not alone!

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  12. I'm sorry to hear that this didn't live up to your expectations. It has been many years since I read but I do remember finishing it in one sitting and rather liking it.

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    1. I wish I had liked it better, I wanted to.

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  13. Oooh I'm so sorry you didn't like it! I think the strongest point for me was the ambiguity: Was I really reading a horror story or was I making it all up like the narrator think she does? I read it some 5 years ago, so I should revisit it to check the building up problem. I hope you enjoy other spooky books for Halloween!

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    1. I was leaning towards her making it all up, but only because I don't believe in ghosts myself!

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  14. I was hoping to read Turn of the Screw this month, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen so I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book. I agree there's nothing more annoying than a big build-up that doesn't go anywhere.

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  15. I wanted to like this book - I enjoy gothic and horror - but I found the writing style impenetrable. Why use 10 words when you can use 50, right? Any emotional impact was blunted by the need to concentrate so much just to figure out what was going on.

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