The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw opens with an unnamed narrator listening to a story read by his friend, Douglas. The story is of a governess who gets a new job at a country house to raise two children, an older boy named Miles and a younger girl named Flora. The children are orphans and are under the care of their uncle, but the uncle doesn’t live at the house and doesn’t wish to be contacted.
Until the arrival of the governess, Miles attended boarding school and Flora was cared for by the housekeeper. However, Miles gets expelled and the governess is not told why. She thinks it must be due to some horrible secret but is too enamoured by sweet Miles to ask him.
The governess grows very fond of the two children and is very happy about her new job – until she notices a strange man lurking on the property, clearly looking for someone. She also sees a mysterious woman wandering about on the land. As the governess starts to learn more about these strange figures and the children’s backgrounds, a sinister picture is painted that blends a past scandal with evil, supernatural forces.
This novella is still surprisingly creepy despite being written 120 years ago. The strange ghostly figures are truly detestable, although I’m still not sure quite why I hated them so much since they never actually do anything wrong in the book. Nothing outright, anyway. Apart from lurk menacingly.
The children are both genuinely sweet yet horrendous – James somehow managed to describe them in such a way as to make them innocent and charming yet knowing and manipulative all at once. An enviable feat. Like the governess character, I felt torn between wanting to protect them and fearing them.
I felt quite frustrated by the governess herself; a naive scream queen of sorts. I was infuriated by her hysteria and nervous dispositon, although these attributes tie in well with the theory that there were no ghostly presences at all and she is simply going mad and imagining them.
The imagery in the story was beautifully gothic, yet, perhaps due to my millennial attention span I did find some of the descriptions to be a tad too long and a little…uninteresting. Does that make me a depraved heretic? Probably.
Obviously I knew I was going to enjoy this creepy horror story from the get go – it’s a classic – and the descriptive language is on another level of art, but I think the Turn of the Screw is better listened to rather than read. It’s a dramatic, atmospheric tale that needs an appropriate setting – not, as I read it, on a train during rush hour.
There are lots of recordings available to listen to, including this one from YouTube: