The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

Rating: ★★

The concept, explained in James' framing device, is that if one of the core horrors is a child being exposed to terrifying apparitions, surely it is a further 'turn of the screw' to have two children aware of such things, and, more, consciously keeping this knowledge from their supposed guardians. That's the angle the story is meant to follow: the idea that children's innocence must be preserved, and it is terrible to have it damaged. I'm not terribly child-obsessed, but I could follow the logic of this theme. The problem is, the story doesn't actually fit it. The novel is in actuality about the refusal to talk about things -- the governess does not forbear from discussing the spirits with the children to protect them -- she is convinced they know about the beings -- but because she finds it too horrible to acknowledge that reality. She is protecting an illusion that exists for nobody. This fear of difficult conversation carries over to the less supernatural matter of Miles' expulsion from school. Rather than tackling the question raised by it, the governess is so ludicrously avoidant of the issue that she treats it as a matter of emotional devastation that Miles eventually asks her when he's going back to school. She is, basically, pathetic, and once you grasp this it's hard to read her with any sympathy.

I accidentally saw 'The Haunting of Bly Manor' on Netflix a couple of months before reading this, and didn't realise it was based on this book until a few pages in. Some of the suspense was therefore a little spoilt, though there didn't seem to be much to begin with and the serialisation added so much else that it's no real guide to the plot. For one, the serial plays the story as some sort of feminist treatise, which the novel most certainly is not. The serial also develops more characters and elements than exist in the novel, and has a better ending (that is to say, an ending).

James does not excel even at the composition. Several of the most simple domestic scenes come across as strangely bizarre, the writing throwing up unexpected obstacles around seemingly straightforward dialogue and meaning. This isn't just archaisms, I've read far older books quite recently without any trouble. James has a peculiar fractured style that sees his characters constantly finishing and interrupting each others' sentences in a fairly unnatural and annoying way.

All in all, poor. The few good images are isolated amongst the pathetic governess' wittering and some irritating and fumbling dialogue, and the conclusion is underwhelming in the extreme.