The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.

If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children - ?
I do like a ghost story at Christmas, and having finished Best Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens (review of A Christmas Carol to follow), I decided to pick up the second of my 25 re-reads, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The first time I read it was probably about fifteen years ago, and I found it frustrating and tricky to follow. And, indeed, the style is a touch awkward at first, but one soon gets into it. 

As for frustrating? No, I don't think it's frustrating. But, to paraphrase the governess, God help me if I know what it is! Is The Turn of the Screw a ghost story or a psychological thriller? I'm pleased, after a little further reading, to discover that this is indeed a debate - is the second narrator (our first narrator is a man reading a written account of the events at a gathering over the Christmas period) - the governess - insane? Or is she truly haunted? She's not an entirely reliable narrator, and why is that? Some details perhaps were forgotten as she came to write her account, or perhaps she was driven insane by the hauntings, or even, equally as convincing, she was mad all along. For the reader who likes to know what they are dealing with, the question is as horrifying as the story itself! My opinion is that it is the latter, and that The Turn of the Screw is less a ghost story, more a psychological thriller. I have good reason, as those who disagree with me will. 

Whatever it is, it is chilling: it's the most frightening ghost story I've read (not that I've read a great many, I should add). From the first paragraph I got goosebumps. It's difficult to say why very clearly, but here is what I'm referring to:
The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion - an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, the same sight that had shaken him.
How to explain why something is scary? Why did this make me uneasy? I think because of the certainty of the little boy, that he didn't wish to be comforted, he wished her to see what was very definitely there. Or was it? The terror was there, and terror is infectious. It could have been the howling wind as I read this, and the room that wasn't quite warmed up yet. But this, and the whole of The Turn of the Screw left me uneasy. The frequent references to the sea in this indicate a bumpy ride for both the reader and the narrator: the fact is, we can't really be sure about anything. The children - Miles and Flora - they appear almost angelic - are they? Perhaps this isn't a thriller at all but a fine joke played by at least one of them. The servant, Mrs. Grose - whose side is she on? Is she a true confident of our narrator, or is she allowing her to drive herself insane? Perhaps neither - the governess, as I've said, isn't a terribly reliable source. 

It is a fascinating read, and I was so drawn into it - it took hours to read this novella because I didn't want to miss a single detail in it. And the end - oh, the end! 

Henry James, I do believe, is the king of novellas. I very much recommend this!

And, one other thing I learned - a song by my favourite singer Kate Bush, called 'The Infant Kiss' is apparently inspired by The Turn of the Screw. I happen to have the French version on my Tumblr, and the English version is here if you want to listen.


  1. Thanks, O, for inspiring me to read one of the authors I tend to avoid. Yes, that's right, James is in my "authors I am afraid of" category. I think perhaps my apprehension is that I feel he is going to take too much effort to understand for the benefit I will receive. Isn't that a bad attitude? I will put him on my radar for late 2014 or 2015.

    And why do you like reading ghost stories at Christmas? Is it because they remind you of A Christmas Carol or for another reason?

    1. Not a bad attitude at all :) He *is* difficult, but I think worth it.

      As for ghost stories... Because of Dickens (probably) it seems like a tradition. We're all thinking of the past; the past year, the past Christmases, and perhaps those who didn't live to see this Christmas. Thinking of ghosts seems natural. And then, the dark nights, the weather; all of that lends itself to the gothic. I imagine reading DIckens and James by candlelight - shadows jumping about, and drafts causing the skin to chill. And for those reading with gas or paraffin light - the fumes from that is enough to make anyone hallucinate! :)

  2. I remember having a really hard time with this one when I read it at university. I honestly didn't understand anything and it put me off Henry James. Maybe I should give it another go?

    I do love A Christmas Carol--will have to do a re-read of that one over the Holiday!

    1. A must-read for this time of year!

      I'm fine, on the whole, with James' novellas, but I've only read one novel by him - Portrait of a Lady. It's put me off his novels for life!

  3. I know exactly what you mean, so terrifying. There is a bit, I think, where she sees a man standing on the top of a tower and he's staring at her, and it just freaked me out. What a writer.

    1. Oh, that was scary! But the meeting on the stairs was pretty creepy as well...


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