The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Probably Henry James’s best known novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story and although I’m not a particular fan of this genre I have to admit that the suspense builds superbly and that I thoroughly enjoyed this rare wander into the supernatural. Although born in New York in 1843 James moved to Europe in 1869 and finally settled in England in 1876 where he lived until his death in 1915 a year after gaining British citizenship. The book, written in 1898, reflects this and reads much more like a Victorian English novel rather than one from his homeland, indeed if I hadn’t known the author was an American I would never have guessed it from the style. The initial premise that it is a story read out to a group of friends from an old manuscript seems similar to so many British mystery and crime novels from the golden age of the 1920’s and 30’s although predating them by at least twenty years that the structure of the work felt so familiar. A group of friends are gathered at Christmas and are telling tales of supernatural events when Douglas stands up and referring to the previous tale starts to introduce his own story…

“I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?…”
“We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.”
I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at this converser with his hands in his pockets. “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on:
“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
He seemed to say it wasn’t so simple as that – to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful— dreadfulness!”
“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women

As you can see this passage from the preface to the novel introduces the title which is then not referred to. The two children are brother and sister Miles, aged ten, and Flora, aged eight, who start off being simply strange but rapidly become more than a little creepy. The story is told by their governess who was appointed to this position at the beginning of the book and the gradual loss of her composure as she discovers that the country house where she is working is haunted by two ghosts, the masters late valet Peter Quint and the children’s previous governess Miss Jessel. Only other servants live at the country house as the children’s parents are both dead and the house belongs to their uncle who never comes there, but lives in London, and as part of the condition of employing the new governess required her not to communicate with him. Her only support in dealing with the increasingly odd behaviour of the children, as they clearly seem not only to be able to see the ghosts but actively pretend not to and also appear to encourage manifestations is Mrs Grose the housekeeper who slowly reveals the history of the two characters. To add to the mystery Miles attended just one term at school before being expelled with no reason given by the headmaster and refuses to talk about his time there. When he was alive Quint apparently spent far too much time with Miles according to Mrs Grose and had an undue influence over the boy whilst Flora appears to have been rather too close to Miss Jessel.

The story is engrossing and was originally serialised in an American weekly magazine over a period of twelve weeks, so two chapters at a time. This probably explains the regular cliffhanger revelations at the end of the chapters thereby ensuring that the next section would be looked forward to by a presumably growing band of avid readers. I’m certainly glad to have finally got round to reading what Stephen King in his 1983 book Danse Macabre described as one of only two great supernatural works of horror in a century, the other being The Haunting of Hill House and I heartily recommend giving it a go.

This copy is from the Alma Classics Evergreens series which at the time of writing has an excellent deal available of ten books for just £30 with free UK shipping.

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