Brad's Reviews > The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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May 14, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: horror, classic, hopes-dashed-like-an-egg-on-cement
Read in April, 1999 , read count: 4

I know this is supposed to be a scary story, and I know that it is the much lauded Henry James who wrote it, but The Turn of the Screw never grabs me the way I hope it will or think it should. It's just not chilling to me, and that's what I want in a ghost story.

That doesn't mean it's without merit -- or perceived merit -- because this is James, after all. When I look at it as the story of an extremely disturbed and unreliable Governess being filtered through a nameless narrator, it takes on so much more depth than the average "scary story." These dual perspectives raise all sorts of questions about the veracity of the tale, whether or not the story-ending death is a murder, and whether the ghosts of Quint and Jessel are figments of an overactive, Romantic/Gothic imagination. And the potential readings spin off from there into politics, intertextuality, psychology, hyperreality and more.

I always wonder, though, if because it's James, I find myself digging much deeper than I was meant to in this tale. Is it possible that James was really just telling a good ghost story? Spinning a yarn? Is it possible that James' reputation, his literary chops, make this tale impossible for me to enjoy as a horror story? Is it possible that I read The Turn of the Screw too deeply?

I think the answer to all these questions is "yes" -- at least for me -- because what I really want when I read a ghost story is a chance to be shivered. I want to be induced to run around the house looking into dark corners and under beds, making sure no one is lurking about and waiting for me to go to sleep so they can paralyze me and gut me with a knife (sorry...I'm okay now). What I don't want is to be so conscious of the writing itself that the shivers never set in -- and that's what happens to me with The Turn of the Screw.

For pure fear, I'll take Poe over James anytime. You're just too damn intellectual to scare me, HJ. Sorry.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Brad Go and read this awesome review of Turn of the Screw. It's Ceridwen's. I now have a crush on her because of her brain and her glasses. This review made it official. ;)


message 2: by [deleted user] (last edited May 14, 2010 04:43PM) (new)

Ha! They are really good glasses, aren't they? You're right, for bone-shattering terror, Poe is more the man, but I loves me an unreliable narrator. I read somewhere - not sure where - that James was puzzled by how everyone sees the TotS narrator as unreliable - so it's entirely possible you may be reading it too deeply, but that's really James's fault for being James. Strap on the dancing shoes, Cambridge here we come!


Brad I loved your review, C. That dance cracks me up.


John Moonitz I understand the issues you have with this story, though I have a completely different take on what James was actually "after" in writing Turn of The Screw . . . He said he wanted to write a story to "catch those not easily caught" . . . and I do believe he succeeded in this . . . and continues to succeed for as long as people argue over whether this is a ghost story or the tale of a neurotic governess with an over-active, overly romantic imagination . . . After several readings I believe this is precisely how James intended to "catch those not easily caught" . . . to embroil the readers in a meaningless debate over these two rather narrow interpretations. Ambiguity is what I believe he was after . . . And just as with every other great piece of literature, I don't believe there IS a single "correct" interpretation . . . because it will impact every individual reader in different ways at different stages of their life. This is why we can read novels like Moby Dick at the age of 19 . . . and then again at the age of 43 (my age now, as I prepare to read this tale for a second time) . . . and again at the age of 70, and it will impact the reader in profoundly different ways each time. Literature is, in my opinion, like music . . . Both you and I may love Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin . . . or Black Sabbath's Paranoid . . . or etc., but it will impact us in different ways, at different stages of our lives . . . That is to say, it is deeply personal.

For myself, Turn of The Screw has moments that are, to me, spine chilling . . . though few in this tale. The impact this story had on me was through the intensely focused language and imagery used by James . . . for me this is a thing of beauty, more than it is a thing of horror.

Anyway . . . that is my take on this!


Brad Well said, John.


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