Friday 13 June 2014

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Gothic Paranormal
Published: 1898
Formats: Hardback/Paperback/Ebook

Available at:
Amazon - Free Ebook Available
The Book Depository
Amazon UK - Free Ebook Available

As part of the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge I was required to read a piece of Gothic fiction which is a piece of literature that combines elements of horror and Romanticism. The use of the word gothic in the description of this genre relates to the pseudo- medieval buildings in which these stories tend to take place. Some classic examples of Gothic literature are “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and “The Turn of the Screw”. For the challenge I decided to pick “The Turn of the Screw” which is a paranormal mystery novella written by Henry James in 1898.

The story focuses on a young governess who is moves out to an Essex country house named Bly to look after two young children. Whilst the two children appear perfect there is some mystery behind why the young boy named Miles has been dismissed from his school. However, this soon becomes a secondary issue when the governess beginning to spot figures appearing around the estate. These figures appear to be supernatural in nature and before long the governess is drawn into a paranormal mystery that seems related to the children themselves and two former employees at the estate who are now deceased.

My first observation about this book is that Henry James’ writing style is not the easiest to follow. He writes in a complex 19th century prose that forces the reader too really work hard in order to get the story underneath. It wasn’t very fun having to work so hard to decipher what was going and I found that when I finished I couldn’t believe that such a short novel had taken me so long to get through.

In addition I can’t say the story creeped me out that much although some of that is probably due to the fact I spent more time trying to work through the text than in getting immersed in the story. I did however find it interesting to see James’ attempts at portraying a sense of menace emanating from the seemingly innocent and perfect children. The psychological effects of this on the various adults were cleverly told and it was in these sections of that I could feel at least some element of a subtle horror story coming to the fore.

One aspect of the book which I suspect could appeal to book clubs and those who analyse literature is that there is no clarification on if the ghosts are real or if the governess is really going insane and imagining it all. James leaves it completely up to the reader to interpret the information on the page and make up their own mind. Personally I find this a bit frustrating as I am a simple man and prefer to know what was actually intended by the author but I do still understand and appreciate the power behind leaving the real conclusion up to the reader themselves.

My final note on the novel is rather minor but it was something that didn’t make sense to me. Basically the prologue of the novel acts as a way to present “The Turn of the Screw” as a story within a story. We are introduced to a group of people sitting around telling each other Ghost stories and that is how the story of Bly house is brought up. Whilst this is all well and good, we never actually return to this group of people to see how it may have affected them. It just seems a waste of words and I don’t understand why James bothered to include this section at all.

Overall this was an interesting look at some late 19th century fiction but I think the writing style and lack of real clarity in the the story left me feeling a bit disappointed. I suspect that the popularity of the novel is actually driven by the fact that people want to argue the ambiguous meaning of the story ad infinitum rather than any of its plot. It is free in ebook form from various places so if you want to make your own mind up on what is actually happens then go pick it up and join the discussion that has been going on for years.


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