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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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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Tuesday Terror! The Friends of the Friends by Henry James

Nameless dread…

 

First published in London in 1896 as The Way It Came, Henry James changed the title in 1909 when the story was re-published in New York. It seemed about time that Henry James should make his first appearance, so here goes for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

The Friends of the Friends by Henry James

 

Henry James by John Singer Sargent
Henry James by John Singer Sargent

An unnamed person is going through the papers of a recently deceased female unnamed person, when he (or possibly she) comes across a narrative written by the deceased UP about herself and two other unnamed persons, one male, one female. Still with me? Good…

The narrator of the narrative (i.e., the dead female UP), whom we will call the narrator, tells us first of the woman, whom we will call the woman. The woman’s claim to fame in society is that she saw an apparition of her father at the exact time that he died…

She rushed to him with a bewildered cry, “Papa, what is it?” but this was followed by an exhibition of still livelier feeling when on her movement he simply vanished, leaving the custodian and her relations, who were at her heels, to gather round her in dismay.

The narrator then meets a man (whom we will call the man) who by an astonishing coincidence had seen the apparition of his mother at the time she died. Immediately the narrator feels these two people should meet, and both show an interest in meeting the other. But for a variety of reasons, every time a meeting is planned something causes it to fall through…

…the accidents continued for years and became, for me and for others, a subject of hilarity with either party. They were droll enough at first; then they grew rather a bore.

The man is often called away on business, while the woman, separated from her abusive husband, lives a retired life in suburban Richmond. She rarely attends other people’s parties, but our narrator frequently attends hers…

…which consisted of her cousin, a cup of tea and the view. The tea was good; but the view was familiar, though perhaps not, like the cousin – a disagreeable old maid who had been of the group at the museum and with whom she now lived – offensively so.

Time passes, and still the two do not meet. After some years, the narrator and the man become engaged to be married, and this makes the narrator even more determined that her friend and her husband-to-be should meet. One afternoon, she arranges for them both to come to her house for tea but, suddenly thinking that their common experience (of seeing the apparitions, remember?) might attract them to each other, in a fit of jealousy, she tells the man she won’t be at home and not to come until dinner time. The woman still comes and waits for an hour for the man to show up, but of course he doesn’t.

victorian

That evening, the narrator admits to the man what she did, and agrees to go and apologise to the woman the following day. But when she gets to the woman’s house, she is met with some shocking news…

“At home, mum? She has left home for ever.”

I was extraordinarily startled by this announcement of the elderly parlour-maid. “She has gone away?”

“She’s dead, mum, please.” Then as I gasped at the horrible word: “She died last night.”

The narrator rushes to the man’s chambers to tell him this news, and to regret that they will now never meet. But the man tells her with great delight that the woman turned up in his chambers the previous evening. Although the woman didn’t speak, the man is convinced she was alive. However, the narrator is equally convinced she must have been dead or dying at the time. But either way, the real question is…

“What on earth did she come for?” He had now had a minute to think—to recover himself and judge of effects, so that if it was still with excited eyes he spoke he showed a conscious redness and made an inconsequent attempt to smile away the gravity of his words.

“She came just to see me. She came—after what had passed at your house—so that we should, after all, at last meet. The impulse seemed to me exquisite, and that was the way I took it.”

And from that point on she sees a change in the man, and feels him drawing away from her…

* * * * * * *

If you’d like to know how the story continues, here’s a link…

This isn’t really a scary story – it doesn’t set out to be – but it is unsettling. Very well written, the early passages are full of quite wickedly humorous jibes at society but the tone gradually becomes more serious as it goes on. Our narrator starts out sounding quite reliable but this changes when she starts to feel jealous – a feeling for which there is initially no foundation since the man and woman haven’t even met. So when her jealousy increases following the death of her friend, it’s unclear to the reader as to whether she has real cause for her feelings. Either there is something supernatural going on, or the narrator is losing her grip on commonsense, at least, if not sanity – whichever version the reader chooses to believe produces its own atmosphere of unease.

No gore, no clanking chains – instead, a story that achieves its disturbing effect quietly and gradually. A good one!

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀