Thursday, September 24, 2009


As part of my ongoing fascination with Victorian and Edwardian macabre fiction, I’ve recently finished Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw.

Described by Oscar Wilde as ‘the most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale’, The Turn of the Screw is, depending on your point of view, one of the most chilling ghost stories ever written or one of the most disturbing portraits of insanity ever committed to paper.

It is this very ambiguity that makes The Turn of the Screw such a fascinating read, infused with both a creeping gothic sensibility and a modernist approach that foreshadows the twentieth century novel.

At its heart it is a simple enough tale: a governess (who, unnamed, provides the bulk of the narrative) is employed to take care of two small children – Miles and his sister Flora – on a rambling country estate. Initially charmed by the children she begins to suspect that there is a deeper and darker secret lurking beneath the surface, suspicions that are confirmed by the mysterious and sinister apparitions that come and go unheeded in both the grounds and house itself. The apparitions, she believes, are the unquiet ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint, who have returned to claim the children to keep them company in the afterlife.

What follows is a story that twists and turns from ghost story to psychological study and back again, leaving the reader often as disoriented as the narrator and, ultimately, with more questions than answers. The primary question is of the narrator’s sanity – since no one else can see the ghosts, do they really exist or are they simply the products of a diseased and obsessed mind?

But ghosts or not, Henry James handles the moments of their appearance with an unsettling ease – the absence of sound when Miss Jessel is first seen on the shores of the estate’s lake, the sudden appearance of Quint at the window or high in an inaccessible part of the house, or the moments when the children are lured outside; moments that may be no more than childish games or may have deeper, supernatural, meanings.

There is, too, James’ impeccable handling of the narrative. As the story moves towards its climax the chapters begin to become shorter, the language of the narrator more terse and less prone to embellishment and the sense of impending horror more and more palpable. Similarly, his use of a framing narrative - which, at first, distances the reader before the events of the story proper suddenly pull him in – is an object lesson in creating false security.

As with so many Victorian novels and short stories, The Turn of the Screw is not always an easy or comfortable read. Fashions in prose have changed considerably since the late 1800’s and there are times when it seems as if Henry James prefers to use several words when one would suffice and, for all its short length, novel at times appears to bog itself down in the minutia of the everyday. But this is to underestimate the power of James’ writing and the precise way that he is able to create unease and, at times, to shock the reader out of their comfortable expectations.

Often compared to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a precursor of the modern (and indeed post-modern) novel, The Turn of the Screw is a deeply unsettling story. Wonderful, lurid and poisonous indeed.


  1. James: I have to admit, I have never read this novel; and have only read Daisy Miller many, many years ago in college (although why I have not read more is a bit of a mystery, as Miller left images that have stuck with me throughout my life). For years that writing from the Gilded Age was way too wordy for me, but lately, in my second half, I don't mind the words anymore.

    You have me very intrigued, I must admit. time to skip off to Amazon and see about a cheap paperback edition. Good post. -- Mykal

  2. Great review. I would normally not touch something like this, but will now put this on my reading list. Forgot cheap paperpack though, I'm going to the library.