The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is categorised as both Gothic Horror Fiction and a ghost story. The novella, published in 1898, has a reputation as the most analysed and ambiguous story of the English Language. As one of Henry’s later works, the story is more experimental in describing the internal states of its characters and their social dynamics.
The Turn of the Screw is a story within a story, which begins to unfold at a Christmas party. The narrator’s first line explains that “the story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome.” James has personified the story to such an extent that in the first line of the novella it feels like a ghost itself. This is the hook for the reader, as one asks themselves exactly what is gruesome? Already, your imagination is running pretty wild.
The ghost story begins with the employment of a governess, who is sent to care for two children in a remote estate in England. Flora is young and beautiful and innocent. Miles has been expelled from boarding school and makes the governess feel uneasy, although she comes to the conclusion, very quickly, that such a small boy couldn’t do such horrible things – things that the reader is not told about. Again, James feeds into the unknown, the what if, the wildness of the imagination. Then there is Mrs Grose, the housemaid, who is an unsettling character. She can be mysterious, cold, and friendly all in a single interaction.
From the very beginning of this story there is the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Whether it’s the employer who wishes to never be contacted, the seemingly polite but disturbed children, or the illiterate housemaid. The reader will be asking themselves questions from the outset.
The Turn of the Screw continues to be popular in the media, it has been adapted numerous times for film, tv, radio, and stage. However, in his own time James’ work had been criticised by other canonised authors such as Oscar Wilde, who stated that Henry wrote “fiction as if it were a painful duty”, and E.M. Forster who complained that James relied “heavily on extremely long sentences and Latinate language”. This is something one can agree to, even as a literary scholar who has studied works from James’ time in depth. Henry’s language can be heavily archaic and sometimes passages need to be read twice to be comprehended. However, any modern reader would probably come up against this barrier as even work by the Modernist author Virginia Woolf contains language that is now considered archaic and challenging. Ultimately, the story itself is effective, scary and captivating, and being a novella it is a quick read for a rainy afternoon.
© Kirsty Louise Farley 2020
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Kirsty-Louise is a published author and poet with a BA hons in English Literature. Working as a Secondary English Teacher, dog walks on the coast, and reading books pass her time in Ramsgate & Margate.