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.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively

Although Penelope Lively is nowadays best known for her books for adults, having been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize three times and winning it in 1987, she started out as a children’s author and this was her fifth book. all of which had been aimed at children. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was published in 1973 and won the Carnegie Medal, as best children’s book of the year which makes Lively the only author to win both of these major book prizes. Just for good measure she also won the Whitbread Children’s Book award in 1976 amongst other book prizes over the years.

I was prompted to pick this book up however due to an instagram post I saw last week which featured the Puffin edition and brought back happy memories of reading it all those decades ago. I knew exactly where it was on the shelves so I had to get it out and those memories haven’t let me down, it is still a fun read. The story starts with workmen renovating East End Cottage in the growing small town of Ledsham before a new family are due to move in. As one of them removes a rotten piece of wood from under the windowsill in the attic room a small bottle falls out and smashes on the floor and unbeknown to them something, or someone is released. This is the featured illustration on the title page and gives an immediate indication of the delightful drawings by Antony Maitland used to illustrate the book.

The room is destined to be the bedroom for James and at first he is very happy to have such an interesting room, all odd angles, so much better than the normal shaped rooms occupied by his sister Helen and their parents. It’s not long however before things start to very badly wrong as Thomas Kempe makes his presence felt. Kempe was a sorcerer back in the last sixteenth and early seventeenth century and had lived at East End Cottage, now he is a poltergeist and a particularly annoying one, smashing items, slamming doors, along with throwing things at James when he won’t do what he wants, because the worst thing is the notes making it quite clear that he regards James as a particularly useless apprentice and is intent on making his life as difficult as possible. Unfortunately for James he appears to be the only person who knows what is really going on, his parents are very sensible and don’t believe in ghosts so suggesting that is the real cause of the problems is a non starter. James therefore becomes blamed for the disturbances and broken items and suspected of the vandalism in the town as Kempe writes abusive messages on doors, walls and fences all over the place making clear his dislike of modern times and the people living in ‘his’ village. What is James to do?

Fortunately for James he eventually meets Bert Ellison, builder and part time exorcist, and finally he has somebody who not only believes him but may be able to do something about the increasingly erratic ghost. The picture below shows Bert’s second attempt at exorcising Thomas Kempe, which unfortunately is no more successful than the first. But then again the reader knew this would fail for some reason as there is still far too much of the book to go. The story rattles along and all to soon I had finished with a satisfying conclusion. I doubt I have picked the book up, other than to transfer it from shelf to box and back to shelf over various house moves, in over forty years but it was still there when I wanted it and it’s been a very enjoyable read.

This is one of my few remaining books from the Foyles Children’s Book Club, that I was a member of from about the age of five or six up to at least twelve. I discussed the club in an earlier blog and I was either eleven or twelve when this book came out in the club edition in 1974, it doesn’t say which month so I don’t know for sure. These monthly books were really formative of my early reading and as can be seen below from the back cover of this edition they were a real bargain. You could also have books from any of the other clubs either as well, or I think instead, and it was around this time I broadened my reading by dabbling with the science and travel clubs as well before leaving the club as I discovered science fiction and would rather have the choice in my local book shop rather than a monthly book in the post. I am forever grateful to the Children’s Book Club though and I hope there is something similar still going on somewhere.

Gaslight and Ghosts – Stephen Jones & Jo Fletcher (Editors)

This book was published in conjunction with the 1988 World Fantasy Convention held in October in London and contains works by what is presumably all the featured guests. That horror writer James Herbert was the guest of honour naturally led to a book of horror and supernatural tales interspersed with some articles on the subject, for example Neil Gaiman, with his journalists hat on, wrote an appreciation of the James Herbert’s works and literary merit. Some writers provided extracts from new or future novels such as Clive Barker’s Cabal or Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids, others supplied short stories from existing collections but there are also numerous new works represented in the twenty two stories and articles in the book, including the piece by James Herbert. Even the editors wrote a short horror teaser together as the opening story rather than a more predictable introduction.

On the 31st October, Halloween, I was between books for this blog and fancied something totally different from what I had been reading and preferably something I could read in small chunks as I didn’t want a full blown novel, maybe a collection of short stories would fit the bill? Perusing the shelves led to Gaslight and Ghosts and it just felt natural that this should be the book to start then. It is decades since I last read a horror or even a simple ghost story, Susan Hill in the book I reviewed last week even wondered if you grow out of them, well the answer is no you don’t.

From the articles included, Neil Gaiman’s review of the literary career of James Herbert is a s well written as you would expect from a writer of his talents. Hugh Lamb contributed a fascinating insight into Victorian horror stories and the joys and difficulties tracking them down and bringing them to modern readers. Mike Ashley produced an interesting summary of the relationship between the American magazine Weird Tales in the 1920’s and 30’s and the dozen books edited by Christine Campbell Thomson in the UK known as the ‘Not the Night’ series which largely seem to be a way of getting round the differing copyright laws on either side of the Atlantic. However Kim Newman supplied a frankly tedious twenty nine page listing of films featuring Jack the Ripper however tenuously he was in them.

But it is the stories that you come to a compendium like this for and there are some really great tales. I particularly liked ‘Beyond Any Measure’ by Karl Edward Wagner which is also by far the longest story in the collection and ‘Immortal Blood’ by Barbara Hambly. Both of these are vampire tales, which I definitely thought I had grown out of, but they are so well written the genre didn’t interfere with a cracking good tale. The oldest story included is ‘The Writer in the Garret’ by Brian Lumley which dates back to 1971 and was genuinely creepy even though you have a horrible feeling that you know how it is going to end; whilst the second oldest, ‘Cat and Mouse’ by Ramsey Campbell, from 1972 is truly terrifying. I could go on James Herbert’s ‘Halloween’s Child’ was written especially for the book and is as un-nerving as you would expect from this master of horror and to relieve the tension both Brian Aldiss and Diana Wynne Jones both provided humorous stories. This volume, as with any anthology associated with a specific event, is tricky but not impossible to track down and is definitely worth the effort.

I bought the book second hand and my copy is multiple signed, clearly the original owner had been round the convention getting as many people as possible to sign it on the opening page of their story or in one case an illustration. The signatories are a spread of the great and the good from 1980’s horror and fantasy writing: Stephen Jones and Jo Fletcher, James Herbert, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, Dave Carson (illustrator), Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, Robert Holdstock, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner, Terry Pratchett, Adrian Cole, Kim Newman and Charles L Grant. Sadly a lot of these are no longer with us and the most notable omission from the signed stories is the one by Brian Aldiss who has also unfortunately died in the intervening thirty two years since publication.

A really good book, I’m glad I was wondering what to read on Halloween.