What can I say about The Turn of the Screw that hasn’t already been said and written? I am sure there are countless papers, essays even PHDs on this, the most inconclusive of ghost stories. In Henry James novella, an unnamed narrator is engaged as governess to two angelic children at Bly, a remote English country house. What initially seems a pastoral idyll soon turns harrowing, as she becomes convinced that the children are consorting with a pair of malevolent spirits. These are the ghosts of former employees at Bly: a valet and a previous governess. Or are they?
That is the central conundrum at the heart of The Turn of the Screw. Are the ghosts real? If so then our governess is sane, noble and self-sacrificing. But, if the ghosts are a figment of her fevered imagination, then she is mad and is putting her charges in grave danger.
James’ skill with the book is his utter commitment to a lack of commitment. You could read this book twice, the first time assuring yourself that the ghosts are real, the second reading assuming they are not and the novella would yield up to your argument. The book may indeed be a ghost story without ghosts.
This governess’s description of her own situation could easily apply to reading the book;
No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!
The tale supports either of these two mutually exclusive contradictory narratives.
But enough Literary Criticism 101, is it any good? Is it scary?
Well, no. Not for me anyway. I have never read Henry James before, but battling through the prose in The Turn of the Screw is like wading through a wordy swamp. The prose is turgid, bordering on pretentious and at times I skimmed to get a general meaning. Take this line:
‘This was not so good a thing, I admit, as not to leave me to judge that what, essentially, made nothing else much signify was simply my charming work’
Nope. Still nothing there I’m afraid. This was not a book that I particularly enjoyed reading. I liked the ambivalence, I always do but I was never spooked by the tale.
John Boyne is less ambivalent in This House is Haunted, I mean, that’s the title, so yes, the house in question is undoubtedly haunted. This book owes quite a debt to The Turn of the Screw (with a pinch of Jane Eyre and a smattering of Rebecca for good measure).
Following the sudden death of her father, plain Eliza Caine answers an advert to act as governess of two children in Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. With no other options available, she takes the job, only to experience two children with no responsible adults around and lots of very sinister occurrences.
If there exists somewhere a checklist of tropes that should appear in a ghost story, then John Boyne has clearly checked everything off his list – an isolated country pile; self-contained possibly traumatised children; hidden characters in attics; surly country folk who turn pale when they meet our narrator and, unlike The Turn of the Screw, no unanswered questions.
It is very similar in tone to Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger yet not quite as successful. Granted, the book barrels along, as the reader picks up the breadcrumbs of the story from other characters and the shocks pile on, but it ultimately lacks tension because we are so familiar with the genre. What I think kept me reading and what powers the book , is the character of Eliza Caine, the plain quick witted girl who must rely on her resilience and strength to survive.
With a nod to the equally strong Jane Eyre, Eliza is quite the feminist for 1897, or as she is called in the book ‘a modern’.
Her conversations with Cratchett, the solicitors’ clerk, elicit her feminist credentials;
‘I’m afraid I don’t have any reading material for ladies here. The only periodical we take is the daily issue of The Times. I’m sure you would find it very boring. It’s all politics, crime and matters to do with the economy.’
‘Well, I’ll just look through it and see if there is any information about the new style in hats’, I said, smiling at him. ‘Or perhaps there’ll be a nice recipe or a knitting pattern’
This little exchange is quite tame compared to her later raging against the village vicar on the treatment of women which is quite the ‘you go girl’ moment. She is an immensely attractive character and the only one in the book, you feel, capable of taking on this visceral maternal spirit that even death can’t quell.
The denouement is dramatically dramatic, as you would expect, in fact it would give the ending of Rebecca a run for it’s’ money and the neat little twist, well, it was to be expected. Given that the novel stuck so slavishly to the elements of the Victorian ghost story, I did expect a little more depth, but no. It is what it is. This house is haunted and at the end of the day, if it is scares you are after then it delivers a whole lot more than The Turn of the Screw.
I could see it being adapted as a movie, given the recent success of The Woman in Black and it would work really well. As The Turn of the Screw does on celluloid, but for now, I think that’s enough ghosts for me. Time to pick something a little more contemporary. Maybe based in the future…..
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