Tuesday Terror! The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Dreadful dreadfulness…

I’ve seen about a million adaptations and derivations of this classic tale, but have never before read the original. Time to rectify that in this week’s…

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

Henry James
by John Singer Sargent

A house party has spent a happy evening swapping ghost stories, when one man, Douglas, tells them that he has a tale given to him by a woman he once knew…

….“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
….“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.
….He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful—dreadfulness!”

The story is of a young governess who is engaged to look after two children, the orphaned niece and nephew of her employer. He makes it clear he sees the children as a nuisance and tells her…

“…that she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone. She promised to do this, and she mentioned to me that when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded.

ENO open-air production of Britten’s opera – If the ghosts don’t make you scream, the singing might…

This gives the reader an early indication that she’s certifiably nuts, something that becomes ever clearer as the tale progresses. Luckily, this means she’ll fit well in at the house in Bly where she will be living, since all the inmates could do with some urgent psychiatric intervention. But first, we must meet her young charges…

The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose appeared to me on the spot a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen, and I afterward wondered that my employer had not told me more of her.

Possibly her employer had sussed that a child of such unnatural beauty and charm must be the spawn of Satan… but I anticipate! The brother is equally uncanny…

…I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful…

Michelle Dockery in a BBC adaptation from 2009

Our governess soon learns of the strange unexplained deaths of the two people who had previously cared for these unnatural monstrosities, but even that doesn’t make her hand in her notice and seek alternative employment. Not even the appearance of dead people around the old homestead is enough to make this woman run for the hills…

I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one’s own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had THEM.

Jodhi May in a TV adaptation from 1999.
Good heavens! Is that?… can it be??… the ghost of Darcy behind her???

* * * * *

Well, my goodness! This didn’t terrify the porpy and me exactly, but it chilled us to the bone. Its ambiguity is its major feature, with nothing clear or explained and with deliberate gaps in time and explanations that leave the reader to make her own interpretations. The great introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition tells me that debate has raged ever since publication over whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the governess’ disordered imagination. I’m in the middle – I could argue for or against the reality of the ghosts. However, I’m decidedly of the opinion that, either way, the governess is crazy and disturbingly obsessed by the beauty of the children. Maybe it’s a symptom of today’s world, but every time the story hinted at corruption or evil I saw it as a euphemism for sexual abuse, and wondered whether the original readers would have thought that or if they’d have seen the evil as a more satanic thing. Had the children been abused by their former guardians? I suspected so. Was the governess sexually abusive? Hmm, perhaps not, but her overwhelming need for the love of the children and her constant physical hugging and kissing of them felt smothering and extreme. Had the children, as victims of abuse sometimes do, become abusers in turn? I don’t want to stray too far into spoiler territory but we are left to wonder why young Miles had been expelled from school…

Deborah Kerr in a movie adaptation, titled The Innocents, from 1961.

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed the story – it stank too deeply of corruption and vice to be entertaining, especially with the involvement of such young children, and I searched in vain for someone I could trust. Of course this is clearly the intended effect, so full marks to James for creating something so disturbing. There are references to some of the Gothic classics and particularly echoes of Jane Eyre, but in this case I had to feel that it was the governess who should have been locked in the attic. Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The porpy was chilled to the bone by this one…

NB I read this in The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories, provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I’ll review the full book later.

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44 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. Fantastic review! This is such an odd and eerie story. I should read it again, I don’t know that I even got as much out of it when I read it (although this was years ago for school) as what you point out here.

    I love the movie The Innocents, it’s so chilling. I’d love to see that more recent BBC adaptation of it, I didn’t know of that one.

    • Thank you! 😀 I thought I might have read it before, but when I started it, I realised I hadn’t – just knew the story from adaptations. I watched The Innocents just after reading it, and enjoyed it, but I felt Deborah Kerr was way too old for the role, though she was still good! I’d like to see the Jodhi May one too – I hope they repeat it sometime.

  2. There’s something about those stories that leave you wondering, isn’t there, FictionFan? Little wonder you and the porpy were both chilled by this one. It leaves questions unanswered, and that, to me, can add to the eeriness. And there’s that house as the setting, too. I have to admit to a fondness for those sorts of old, creepy-in-themselves, houses.

    • I just abandoned a book because the author didn’t get that ambiguity and suggestion work so much more effectively than describing graphic gore! I love the house too – I watched The Innocents just after reading it and there’s a great scary scene where they play hide and seek round all the empty, abandoned rooms… 😱

  3. Great review! I began this many years ago but didn’t finish because I was bored. I probably need to give it another chance. (Yet I appreciated The Portrait of a Lady when I read it in college years afterward.
    The book cover made me laugh out loud, because the image really isn’t scary.

    • Ooh, I think that child is super creepy – but then I think most kids are super creepy! 😂

      I wasn’t thrilled with his style of writing, I must admit, but this story was the last one in the collection so I’d had time to get used to it. I don’t know how I’ll cope with a whole novel full of his writing though – I’ve got one on my Classics Club list.

  4. Great post! Studied this novella at university. I didn’t really like it, but it’s much better than the few others of his I’ve attempted to read without being bored to sleep.
    His paragraphs are like pages long. I can’t stand when an author does this (Kafka is also guilty).

    • It’s certainly the best one in this collection. Overall, I wasn’t very taken with his writing style, though I’d got used to it by the time this one came up – sensibly, they’d left it till last. As well as the length, I found his sentences can be really clunky – I often found myself having to go back and read them again to make sense of them…

  5. I loved the complexity and ambiguity of this one FF but if I remember rightly, some of it is a slog to read. I might seek out a couple of those adaprations – although I have seen the Deborah Kerr one.

    • Yes, I found his style quite off-putting, and several times had to read a sentence more than once to make sense of it. Fortunately, this was the last in the collection, so I’d kinda got used to him by then, but although I enjoyed this one, I don’t think he’ll become one of my favourite writers. I watched The Innocents at the weekend and enjoyed it – not as good as the story though. I’d like to see the Jodhi May one, though…

      • His style is pretty hard to take, but I thought this one worked well – mind you, I think my mind has been reprogrammed by all these Victorian novels I’ve been reading recently… 😉

          • I had just run out of reviews – I find blogging works best if I have a couple of weeks away from online life every three months or so to re-stock! I usually tie it in with tennis but there are no big tournaments at this time of year.

  6. Poor freezing porpy! I don’t recall watching or reading this one — and from what you’ve said here, I suspect it would have lingered long with me, too. Something about all that innuendo, especially around small children, that gives me the creeps. Think I’ll pass!

    • Haha – I brought the porpy in and gave him a saucer of warm milk in front of the fire, so he’s fine now! 😉 Yes, I always find stories that involve abuse of children, of whatever kind, difficult to take. This story is excellently done, but I admired it rather than enjoying it…

  7. I had two goes at reading this – the first time I gave up as it seemed so slow to get going with long, convoluted sentences that seem to drag the story down. But the next time I tried it I was soon engrossed in the tale – I often find I have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy a book.

    I think it’s creepy and disturbing and asks loads of question – never really answered or explained. I think it’s all the better for the ambiguity.

    • I loved the ambiguity and creepiness, but agree about the sentence structure – I often found myself having to read a sentence twice to get the meaning of it. This story is by far the best in the collection – overall, I don’t think he’d ever be a favourite author of mine.

  8. I am not a big fan of Henry James – except for this one. It’s a chiller for sure – very creepy and twisty – which just proves that the ‘psycho thriller’ trope is not new, right? I’ve seen one of the movies. I need to hunt for more.

    • I’ve only read this collection, and this story is definitely the best of them. I find his style quite hard to take – I often found myself having to re-read bits to make sense of them, so I don’t think I’m likely to become a fan either. I’ve got one of his novels on my Classics Club list though. I watched The Innocents at the weekend and enjoyed it, though I think the story’s better. But I’d love to watch the Jodhi May version if it’s ever repeated.

  9. As I said before, I believe it’s the cover of this book that is the most terrifying thing to me. And funny that the appearance of ghosts doesn’t set this woman running-reminds me of that movie with Nicole Kidman in it…sigh I can’t remember what is was, maybe The Others?

    • Oh, yes – it’s years since I watched that but I seem to remember it was pretty scary! Haha – yes, I never understand why they don’t head for the hills as soon as the ghosts appear, but I guess it would make for very boring books… 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 It’s another of the ones I kinda thought I had read before, but I hadn’t. I also didn’t know Darcy had been in one of the adaptations! Must get hold of it…

    • I thought I’d read it before, but it turned out I hadn’t – well worth re-visiting, I think! And I didn’t know Darcy had been in an adaptation… must get hold of that one…!! 😀

  10. I haven’t read this one but I did read Portrait of a Lady and was fairly underwhelmed
    Perhaps the governess is under their spell from the start and only sees them as beautiful as part of their ensnarement of her. I don’t know the story at all so this may be way off base.

    • I wasn’t thrilled with his style overall, but this was the best of the collection. Hmm – it is possible, because she was clearly nuts right from the beginning. That’s actually it’s main strength – that it’s possible to interpret what’s happening in lots of different ways and they all work…

  11. I still have not read this, despite meaning to for a long time (it’s not very long!) – I feel inspired by the fact that you found it chilling. Sometimes I worry that scary books are not really going to be that scary!
    And then I’ll be able to watch all those adaptations!

    • I frequently don’t find them scary, and this one was definitely more chilling than spine-tingling, though there are some nice spooky moments. But I do love seeking out the adaptations and seeing how well they work (or don’t!)… 😀

  12. This does sound good! I’ve seen various adaptations but never read the book because I struggle with James’ style. But the quotes you pulled were readable so I might give it another chance 😀

    • Yeah, I wasn’t a fan of his style either, but I found this one better than the others in the collection. Somehow the obscurity of his sentences added to the vagueness and ambiguity of the horror…

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