Monday, December 7, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Having so enjoyed Henry James’ lengthy novel, The Bostonians, I thought I could easily squeeze in another back-to-the-classics challenge read—James’ The Turn of the Screw, which was my choice for classic novella.

This is a classic ghost story, set up by a narrator who promises an ugly, dreadful tale and has his audience quivering with anticipation. However, it’s more than your typical round-the-campfire scary story. The participant, a governess, is sent to a remote estate to care for two orphaned children by an attractive wealthy man who is their uncle. The uncle’s sole request is that she never bother him with any details. Anxious to earn his approval, she sets out to obey.

The young children are uncannily beautiful and well-behaved, but there is the odd circumstance that the boy has been expelled from school for reasons the headmaster did not make clear. The governess is unable to believe the boy guilty of any wrong-doing, and his goodness is corroborated by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who has known the children a long while.

Not too much time passes before the governess begins to see apparitions: an evil man and woman who she can describe in such detail that Mrs. Grose recognizes them to be Quint and Miss Jessel, the uncle’s previous valet and the children’s previous governess. Both these people are dead.

While it’s possible (and as been proposed by some literary critics) that the governess is simply insane, there are too many things that point to her credibility as a witness.

She tries to protect the children from these evil influences, but becomes aware that the children are, in some way, in collusion with the ghosts.

Bravely, the governess tries fighting back against the ill-intentioned specters (just what their intentions are is left deliberately ambiguous) but her attempts to win control of the children has disastrous results.

To a modern reader, this book is not as terrifying as it might have once seemed, but it is still eery and full of suspense. I’m not a big fan of horror, but this one, superbly written, is worth the read.