Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Horror

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.



The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!


It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

– One of James’s more readable passages, drawn from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

  1. The governess was crazy;
  2. The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or
  3. Trying to work it out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… stay tuned for the review next week!


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

 

Dracula – Bram Stoker

I was casually strolling past the secondhand bookstore a couple of months ago, minding my own business, when this bad boy peeked out from the bargain bin, advertising itself at the irresistibly reasonable price of $3. Normally, such circumstances would be cause for much rejoicing, except that they came the day after I had promised my husband I would purchase no more books until after our honeymoon (an ill-fated attempt at fiscal responsibility). I had some shame-faced ‘splaining to do when I came home with a brand new copy of Dracula under my arm (even if it was one of the best book bargains ever).

Think what you will, but I’ve never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’ve never read Twilight or any other semi-erotic watered-down vampire romances, and I’ve avoided basically all vampire-themed pop culture since I was a child (when I discovered, thanks to the selection of spooky books at the local library, that vampires scared the pants off me). So, I came at Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a very clean slate.

Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel (Dracula was published in 1897, and there were at least a handful of others that appeared before that), but his work has certainly been the most enduring. At first, it garnered pretty much the same reception as Twilight has had today – the hoi polloi enjoyed it well enough, but it was ignored as second-rate nonsense by literary critics right through until the second half of the 20th century. The shift in public opinion came with the emergence of psychoanalysis. All of a sudden, Stoker’s book could be read as an expression of pretty much any kind of “sexual deviance” you can imagine: female sexual empowerment, homoeroticism, interracial fucking, incest and/or pedophilia… pick your poison. Attention from the literary elite and popularity with the masses finally evened out with the advent of film adaptations. As of 2009, Dracula had featured as a major character in approximately 217 films (and, here’s a fun fact, that’s second only to Sherlock Holmes, who has featured in 223). Still, Stoker barely made a dime off the original publication. He was forced to apply for literary grants towards the end of his life, and the note on the author in the front of edition has the best closing line ever:

“Stoker died in 1912, probably of syphilis.”

The story of Dracula‘s migration from Transylvania to London (in search of new blood and young dames) is told through a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. We start out with newly-minted solicitor Jonathan Harker starting a detailed diary of his journey to Transylvania to meet with the Count. He details his initial days there, and the dawning realisation that he is a prisoner in the castle where his host is a literal monster who sleeps in a coffin and summons wolves to eat people. I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but ol’ Jonno was a bit slow on the uptake (as are pretty much all of the characters, really – they should have spent less time writing in their diaries and more time watching what was going on around them).

Just as Jonno is making his exodus from Casa de Creepy, his diary entries stop, and we shift to the letters and journals of his wife and her best friend. They’ve been holidaying at the beach, and weird shit starts happening there too. There’s a massive storm, a missing dog, a shipwrecked boat with no one on board except a dead captain, and the friend sleepwalks right into the arms of an honest-to-gosh vampire. Mrs Jonno doesn’t seem to realise that all of this is weird, though. She’s too busy practicing her shorthand and wondering where the fuck her husband has got to.


At this point, Jonno and his missus both disappear from the story for a bit, and we flip back and forth between newspaper articles describing the apparent illness of the wife’s friend (must’ve been a slow news day), and a wolf that escaped from the zoo. A bunch of the friend’s ex-lovers gather to her bedside, and one of them calls in his doctor mate – Van Helsing – to see if he can sort her out. In the end, though, she dies, and Van Helsing has them cut off her head and stuff her mouth full of garlic.

It’s a bit of a bummer, but everyone seems to just keep calm and carry on. Van Helsing definitely has the hots for Mrs Jonno, he won’t shut up about how she’s “just as smart as a man” and “God must love her a whole lot”… which is probably why everyone freaks the fuck out when Dracula goes after her.

All of the Madonna-whore subtext just bubbles over at this point in the story, and – just to make sure you haven’t forgotten about those super-important Victorian gender roles – all of the MEN go about BEING MEN and devise a VERY MANLY PLAN to slay the evil dragon vampire. This all carries on for quite a while. It gets a bit Moby Dick-esque actually: all the way down to the last 20 pages and the chase is on, but where’s the fucking pay-off?




They do finally catch the bad guy, and Mrs Jonno is saved, woohoo. I flick the final page, only to find that the editors have included a stack of explanatory notes at the end… with not a single mark in the actual text to indicate where they apply. Super helpful guys, thank you so much, I hope you treated yourself to a boozy lunch after mocking up that lay-out.

I can see why other people are really into Dracula, all the key elements are there, but… meh. Not for me. It feels like I’ve read a stack of these lately (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance) where there’s a floppity jillion interpretations of the text: Freudian, feminist, queer, post-colonial, Marxist, anthropological… by this point, I’ve run out of -ials and -ists. I’m exhausted, guys! It’d be nice to read a book that’s just about what it’s about for once. Luckily, there’s one coming up, stay tuned…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dracula:

  • “I LOVE TO READ HORROR STORIES. YOU CAN USE YOUR IMAGINATION IT’S BETTER THAN LOOKING AT THE MOVIE” – Amazon Customer
  • “read it and find out, geez” – Kadesh
  • “It turns out dracula is the name of the monster” – H.O.
  • “Drac should get a tan.” – Ryan
  • “…. Suspension of disbelief in Dracula’s mystical power is not as difficult as suspension of disbelief in his pursuers’ dedication to their diaries while in the midst of a life or death manhunt….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I didn’t like it cause it’s a book” – Porter Cave

 

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