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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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:          😀 😀 😀 😀