The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

Mostly about the Other Stories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection is made up of four stories – the novella length title story and three shorter ones. The Turn of the Screw is, of course, a classic of the horror genre, and since I’ve already had my say about it in a Tuesday Terror! post, here’s a brief summary of the others…

Sir Edmund Orme – Our narrator becomes fascinated by a mother and daughter, Mrs Marden and Charlotte, because of what he feels is their peculiarly strong concern for each other. Then, as he finds himself falling in love with Charlotte, the narrator begins to see a strange man, who never speaks, and his appearances seem to coincide with Mrs Marden’s “episodes”. Eventually, she takes him into her confidence and tells him the story of her one-time lover, Sir Edmund Orme.

Despite having a ghost in it, the story really isn’t scary or spooky. It’s strange, however, and a little unsettling, mainly because the narrator comes over as something of a predator who coldly uses Mrs Marden’s fear and Charlotte’s love for her mother to achieve his own ends. It’s superficially entertaining, but left me feeling rather as if I’d been made an accessory to something rather cruel.

Owen Wingrave – the title character is a young man from a military family who is being crammed for the entrance exam to get into Sandhurst, the army’s elite officer training college. However, Owen has different views – he despises war, and believes that politicians who lead their nations into war should be hanged, drawn and quartered. When he drops out of training, his family and friends put pressure on him to think again, and when the girl he loves implies that he is a coward, to prove her wrong he agrees to spend a night in the haunted room of his family castle…

The ghostly factor of this one is well-nigh non-existent, but it’s a good story for all that. It’s a rather poignant look at how military tradition forces young men to seek glory rather than choosing a more peaceful path in life.

The Friends of the Friends – another I’ve written about previously in a Tuesday Terror! post. This tells the story of two people, a man and a woman, who share the distinction of each having seen a ghost. This coincidence makes their mutual friends want to bring them together, but circumstances always seem to prevent them meeting. Eventually it seems they will meet, but it isn’t to be – one of them dies before the meeting takes place. The other one, however, as we know, can see ghosts…

Again unsettling rather than scary, this starts out quite jollily with a lot of jibes about society and so on, but gradually darkens into a story about jealousy taken perhaps to the point of madness.

* * * * *

While for the most part I found the writing good and certainly effective at conjuring up an atmosphere, I several times came across sentences so badly constructed that they required me to go back and read them again to catch the meaning, and sometimes they were still obscure after that. Perhaps sometimes James was doing this for effect, to add to the vagueness and ambiguity. But truthfully, I mostly felt it was simply clumsy, lazy writing that he hadn’t bothered to revise properly before publication, and as a result I’ve entirely lost the desire to read any of his novels.

Aside from that criticism, each of the four stories is well-structured, and the sense of vagueness that surrounds the narrative intention has the effect of leaving them open to interpretation. I found this tended to make them linger in my mind for longer than most spooky stories, as I mulled over what was beneath the surface. And generally speaking, I concluded that what was there was rather unpleasant – hints of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw, a controlling lover in Sir Edmund Orme, family pressure taken to extremes in Owen Wingrave and extreme jealousy in The Friends of the Friends. Horror stories always tend to be based on unpleasant things, of course, but here it somehow left me feeling more uncomfortable than usual and I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps because the horror aspects are mostly low-key and so the underlying story stands out more than usual, or perhaps because James uses ambiguity to force the reader to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, making it feel as if the unpleasantness comes from inside her own mind. Whatever the reason, it meant that though I quite enjoyed them while reading I found they left a slightly nasty aftertaste – especially The Turn of the Screw. I wonder if that was James’ intention? I suspect it may have been.

Henry James

You can probably tell that I feel quite ambivalent about this collection. I rated each of the three shorter stories as four stars and The Turn of the Screw as five, but that’s mostly due to my appreciation of their impact rather than an indication of my enjoyment.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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27 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

  1. As I read your review, FictionFan, I was thinking of how very important the simple fact of careful editing is. I’m hardly perfect myself – at all! – as a writer, so I know how easy it is to let a clumsy sentence go by. But for the reader, it can make all the difference. And I know what you mean about stories that stay with you chiefly because they’re a bit vague or have some ambiguity. I’m glad you thought the stories were all right, if not all exactly tops.


    • I think what annoys me is that you’ll often see a reader blame herself for not understanding, as if somehow being difficult to understand is a sign of superior writing. Being kinda opinionated (I know that will have surprised you! 😉 ), my position is that a major sign of good writing is the ease with which the reader can read it. It should flow – it should be the ideas that make you want to stop and think, not the difficulty of working out which pronoun refers to which character… *stomps off, grumpily*

      Liked by 1 person

    • I do get annoyed with these ‘great’ writers who seem to have difficulty forming a comprehensible sentence! I got one of his novels in my Classics Club spin, but I’m still so grumpy with him I’m refusing to read it… 😉


  2. Meh, doesn’t sound like something I want to spend time reading (but thank you for your unbiased review!) Horror isn’t my genre-of-choice — I kind of enjoy a peaceful, uninterrupted nighttime sleep, ha! — but if I were to read it, I’d kind of expect it to project lots of classical creepy elements. I can see why you’d come away from this collection feeling ambivalent.


  3. I read Turn of the Screw in school but I don’t really remember much about it. I read Portrait of a Lady around the time the Nicole Kidman movie came out. I remember liking it but not loving it enough to read any of his other works. These stories do seem like the have an unpleasant underbelly to them.


    • I’m probably being unfair about his novels, but when he came up as the winner of my CC spin, I realised I really don’t want to read more of him after these, not for a while at any rate. Partly because the clunky writing annoys me and partly because these really did leave an unpleasant aftertaste on the whole…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Really not a Henry James fan… tried a few of his stories, the paragraphs are too long and I don’t know what he means half the time. I know he’s a ‘classic’ writer, but I think he’s overrated.


  5. As always a fascinating review – I think ambiguous stories either work for me and I think they are very clever or I lose all patience with the writer – I’m not sure why I only have the two extremes!
    It is so important that the writing isn’t incomprehensible and it sounds as though Henry James needed a good proof reader.


    • I’m the same – if they work for me, I assume it’s due to skill and if they don’t, I assume it’s due to not being done very well! Yes, I’ve heard so many people say they find Henry James difficult to read and no wonder! Making your sentences understandable ought to be one of the requirements of writing, I feel… 😉


  6. Hmmm yah, I understand why you’d feel ‘creeped out’ but not in a horror-like way from these stories. Things that ring of realism are always the worst, because you know they are probably happening all over the world!


    • Yes, I don’t really want realism in horror stories – too horrible! I just want nice ghostly figures seen from the corner of the eye, and preferably the only victims to be bad people who deserve it… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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