Gothic Reading List: The Turn of the Screw

The second book on the reading list is Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”. Three other short ghost stories were included in this collection, and each had their charms.

Henry James, unlike Mary Shelley, led a much more under-the-radar sort of life. Born in the United States, he travelled around most of his life before settling in the UK, and travelling is common theme in all of his works. Otherwise, no one seems to know that much about him, and guesswork isn’t relevant.

And yet, in spite of his low-key life, he opted to explore the darker side of our human psychology. I read his Portrait of a Lady quite a while back, and remember enjoying it, but it’s “The Turn of the Screw” that stayed with me, and on re-reading it, I remember why.

In terms of style, James is not my favourite. He has a tendency to, when at all possible, for the sake of flow, imagery, and personal expression, over the course of the novel, break up his sentences so much that one forgets what he was trying to say at the beginning by the time he gets to the end. In one sense it worked to my advantage because it slowed me down, and I wonder if this is part of why I enjoyed the building suspense so much.

Because that’s where James excels. The first chapters of TTofS are my favourite, when we don’t know for sure what’s coming, but we know something is, and we know that it’s evil, and creepy, and involves two “perfect” children. And let’s face it, what’s creepier than “perfect” children? Once he actually introduces the ghost, the creepy factor eases a bit, but whenever they’re off screen, and the main character just senses them, knowing something is about to happen… more than once the hairs on the back of my neck raised.

The other short stories were The Friends of Friends, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, and The Jolly Corner, and in each one, he builds the suspense well. And it’s not so much that the twist is unexpected, but how he goes about it is superb. It’s also not because he drops hints. He comes right out and says what we can expect, and I think that takes an even greater skill than living it unknown until the big reveal. We know there are ghosts at Bly, because the prologue is a bunch of people sitting around telling scary stories — but that doesn’t matter. It’s how the mystery affects the people living in the house. That’s where the twists come in. Will the housekeeper believe the governess when we claims to see these characters around the yard? What role do the children actually play? Are they as corrupt as she starts to think they are, or is that part in her head? Some of these questions are never resolved, but half the fun of the story is watching things fall apart.

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes is about two sisters falling for the same man, driven by jealousy and vanity. The suspense in this one doesn’t even start building until the final chapter — almost the final page. It’s just a quick tension, but effective.

The Friend of Friends is one that evoked many emotions for me. The one almost works the opposite as the one before where he sets up the suspense in the first couple of pages, and then seems to forget it. Moves along with the story as if the first pages never happened. This creates it’s own version of suspense, because as a reader, I was on edge waiting to see how he tied it in with the rest. Which he does. And in a way that made me want to throw the book across the room because of the emotional chord it struck.

Of the four stories, the only one I had a hard time with was The Jolly Corner. I found the “garden path” sentence structure even more pronounced, and had to re-read some sentences a number of times to get the message out of them. This one is more an exploration of self, and while I wasn’t blown away by the story, there were moments that had me riveted. When he’s exploring his old house at night, for example. It’s quiet, and nothing is moving, there’s no noise, there’s nothing happening, but in those moments you’re waiting. The anticipation is high, and he managed to create the same atmosphere in his words as a director does with similar on-screen shots.

I tried to watch for certain words that he used, or turns of phrase that helped form the image, but I think it was the way he described what wasn’t there. His focus on the mundane when the readers knows there’s something behind the narrator. The description of corners, curtains, doorways when you think there might be something behind them.

Beautifully done, and now I’m going to forget about real ghosts for a while and read some gothic parody in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

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