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Turn of the Screw

The classic 1898 horror short story by Henry James.

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I'm afraid I just don't understand this novel's reputation!

  • Sep 22, 2010
THE TURN OF THE SCREW is the ambiguous story of a governess teaching two young orphaned children whose uncle guardian has assumed the financial responsibility for their upbringing but wishes to have absolutely no physical or emotional contact with them. Very shortly after she assumes her duties, ghostly apparitions begin to frequent the children's home and the surrounding grounds. Initially, the governess is worried that her sanity may be in question but, when she describes the appearances of the phantoms to the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, they are identified as Miss Jessel, the former governess and corrupt valet, Peter Quint, who left the home under very questionable circumstances. The governess, now convinced that the phantoms are all too real, is terrified that they are attempting to abduct and corrupt the souls of her two precious charges, little Flora and Miles.

Written in 1898, THE TURN OF THE SCREW has a reputation as the quintessential Victorian horror story and is revered in English literature as one of the finest examples of the genre. With advance billing like that, I wanted to like it, I really did. In a desire to be fair and balanced to a novella that has such a lofty reputation, I've taken the liberty of quoting Mary Whipple's eloquent five-star Amazon review (because I've come to trust Mary's opinions and, in fact, this is one of the reviews that prompted me to read it in the first place). Mary characterized the story as " ... still haunting after all these years."

"One of the most seductive of all ghost stories, TURN OF THE SCREW is a sophisticated and subtle literary exercise in which the author creates a dense, suggestive, and highly ambiguous story, its suspense and horror generated primarily by what the author does NOT say and does not describe. Compelled to fill in the blanks from his/her own store of personal fears, the reader ultimately conjures up a more horrifying set of images and circumstances than anything an author could impose from without.

... Though the governess is certainly neurotic and repressed, this novel was published ten years before Freud, suggesting that the story should be taken at face value, as a suspenseful but enigmatic Victorian version of a Faustian struggle for the souls of these children, yet numerous other interpretations find their ardent supporters as well."

While many ideas have been put forward, no unequivocal solutions to the mystery of the story exist because, frankly, James himself provided no explanations which might shed any light on this meta-mystery.

For many readers, this type of ambiguity is quite acceptable. Indeed, it is often the hallmark of a horror story that provides the spine-tingling frisson reaction that lovers of the genre look for. But, frankly, I just didn't care for it. Too me it smacked of an author who had a few rather creepy ideas abrogating his responsibility for the resolution of the plot and leaving it entirely up to the readers.

Even allowing for the literary habits of Victorian writers, the writing style itself, for my tastes, was lofty, muddled, pretentious and extraordinarily difficult to interpret. I found myself reading many sentences over and over again merely to haul a basic meaning out of the words. The reactions and the resulting decisions and actions of the governess and the housekeeper seemed odd, at best, and contrived and silly at the other extreme.

Sure, with the benefit of hindsight, I've read the analysis and the comments and I can see how they apply but, in the reading itself, I just didn't get it at all. And I don't think of myself as an inattentive reader or someone with constrained ideas by any means. So, despite the best of intentions, this is a review that definitely goes against the grain and pans what is generally considered a classic!

Not recommended.

Paul Weiss

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More The Turn of the Screw reviews
review by . May 18, 2010
Turn of the Screw: A Review   Henry James’s Turn of the Screw is a well-crafted ghost story. But its suspense is derived from James’s style and the personalities of the characters. If one word could describe Turn of the Screw, that word is ambiguity.   James uses the first person perspective to place the reader on edge. The protagonist is a young woman who applies to be a caretaker for two young children who, James leads us to believe, are one step below royalty. …
Quick Tip by . December 22, 2010
Eerie and quite complex. This is the kind of psychologically ambiguous ghost story that will leave some readers thrilled, some angry and some perplexed. It's short enough to be well worth the time to judge for yourself.
Quick Tip by . July 01, 2010
Quick Tip by . June 25, 2010
Deceptively creepy, James will engross you with this great narrative that simply refuses to be tied down to any real classification.
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
A good read, and oddly thought-provoking.
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
Good Book, Great Story, Interesting, catchy, gets you involved every chapter
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
I think it takes a certain taste to enjoy these stories. I read them before when I was still in elementary but didn't really understand why the stories were considered horror, but rereading it, I find the classic rhythmic way James tells his stories different, classical, and brilliant. Understand that these stories were written a century ago so if you aren't a fan of old stories - usually not gory or overt in their stylings, then you won't like this book.
Quick Tip by . May 19, 2010
One of the most eerie & psychologically complex horror stories. I love the ambiguity of whether or not anything supernatural ever occurred.
review by . February 22, 2007
Long before DaVinci Code, Turn of the Screw was generating all sorts of controversy. Are the ghosts genuine or a product of neurosis? Who sees them? Just what is going on with the young master, and is he actually perpetrating all the terror? Then there are readers who dislike James's style. For me, these and other questions enhance my enjoyment of this essentially timeless story. James's elegant language merely adds another layer to the deliciously creepy atmosphere. The Turn of the Screw is fun …
About the reviewer
Paul Weiss ()
Ranked #15
   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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About this book



Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic Literature, Horror
Date Published: October 13, 1898
Format: Novella

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