Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review - Henry James's The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Published by: Modern Library
Publication Date: 1898
Format: Paperback, 256 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

On Christmas Eve ghost stories are being told around the fire and Douglas says his will chill them to their very bones, but he will only tell it in the words of his friend, who at the time was a young governess. Douglas sends away for her journal, which she gave to him for safe keeping after her death, and when it arrives he begins the story. The young governess is hired by the attractive uncle of two children, Miles and Flora. He has them ensconced in the country at his estate in Essex and has no desire to be bothered in any aspect of their upbringing. Upon her arrival at Bly the governess is taken in by the angelic beauty of Flora, just as she will be by Miles when he is expelled from his boarding school and returned to Bly, an occurrence she cannot understand, due to his apparent perfection.

But soon their idyllic life is shattered by the appearance of two people. This man and woman seem to come and go as they will. After discussing them with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, she learns the female spectre is none other then her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the male is Peter Quint, Miss Jessel's lover and another former employee. Only both of them are dead. The young governess is convinced they want the children and will do anything to achieve their nefarious goals from beyond the grave. But even if this is what is really happening can she stop them?

Much like the young heroine in The Turn of the Screw I had my head turned by a hansom man and visions of romance. Many many years ago my friends Matt and Becky and I were walking to the video store, you remember those, you could rent physical movies on these large clunky tapes that could get easily damaged and had to be rewound before returning. We were in the trashier section of our college campus and we found $40 on the ground. Knowing it was probably a drunken frat boy who had lost said money we pocketed it and used it to rent some movies.

After looking for ages we decided on two movies, the new Hamlet staring Ethan Hawke and The Turn of the Screw, because, well, Colin Firth. There was one thing all three of us could agree on, and that was Colin Firth is hot. Also the movie not sounding too much like a period piece, Matt agreed, and again, Colin Firth is hot. We lasted only about twenty minutes into Hamlet before we gave up, yes, it was that bad. But we did watch all of The Turn of the Screw... after this both my friends said I should pay them for having to watch the two movies because I had suggested them in the first place. We compromised by making me return them to the video store.

I was left with two thoughts after watching the movie, one, false advertising, you put Colin Firth's name as a star he should be in more then five minutes, and two, evil wins!?! No matter what your interpretation of events, it's evil, in some form, that is victorious. And as evil took root, I waited for Colin to reappear, and he never did. I fell for the same bait and switch as that young governess. Of course she was unwilling to ask him for aid in a time of need to show her reliability and fortitude, whereas I was all like, Colin, come back! Since then the BBC has made another version, this time with several stars from Downton Abbey, which again left me unsatisfied. For so many years I have been under this impression that The Turn of the Screw was this amazing classic that was being done an injustice by bad adaptation after bad adaptation. I now know that that isn't the case. The Turn of the Screw is just a badly written story with enough wiggle room to allow for many interpretations of the text.

In the final analysis the question isn't was the governess insane or were there supernatural forces at work, the question is, is this even readable? The answer is no. The writing in this book verges on the indecipherable. James took a lot of flack for his overwriting stories, and, I can see why. He has a tendency to not only write too much but write sentences that seem to turn back in on themselves so he talks himself out of his original idea. These long sentences with too many commas have a tendency to be the length of paragraphs, and in a few rare instances, pages long, always ending up in an entirely different place then where they started and becoming increasingly incoherent in the process.

If James can't be bothered to maintain a train of thought in a sentence it's no wonder the book is all over the place and ripe for adaptations that can take as many liberties as they want, because, let's face it, even James didn't know where his story was going. If it wasn't for the fact I knew the plot, well, I wouldn't have been able to figure it out by just reading it. I spent more time fighting to grasp onto the text and try to get some sense out of this book then any other book I've ever read. In the end I gave up to the inevitable and just let the text wash over me as my eyes glazed over and I prayed for the end.

But the inability of James to write coherently is nothing to his structural issues and his unsympathetic characters. Firstly, there is no suspense in this story. I'm not sure if this derives from his inability to set the stage or just the fact that I didn't care if all the characters died horrifically, but there was no jeopardy that made me want to keep reading. A ghost story should at the very least have some suspense, some ability to have the hair on your next rise up and question the sudden chill in the room. Now to the aspect that annoyed me most. James uses the "framing" device of having a group of friends sitting around the fire telling each other ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I have no problem with this, what I do have a problem with is that this "framing" device was left unfinished and in the end was more of a prologue.

To frame a story you need it at the beginning and the end, not just the beginning! I get that he might have wanted to end with the "shock value" of what happened to the insufferable Miles, but, well, the governess's story went on, she somehow got another job and came to meet Douglas and impart this story to him. How the hell did she get another job? Just, gaw! She was THE WORST GOVERNESS EVER and someone else employed her after this? Something shouldn't be labelled a classic because of the time you can spend discussing the text and delving into the deeper meanings, sometimes you're just thrusting your own ideas and meanings onto a text that doesn't deserve to be cherished, but deserves to be forgotten in the mists of time... or the mists that hide the spurious phantasms around Bly.


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