The Turn of the Screw AND Owen Wingrave, Henry James

The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave by Henry James
Afterword by David Stuart Davies

Publisher: Collector’s Library
Pages: 213 (Hardback)
Form: Novellas


Henry James was the master of the psychological ghost story, and his gripping novella The Turn of the Screw is his most terrifying achievement. The governess charged with the nurture and education of two young children in an old isolated house in the country becomes convinced that they are being haunted and corrupted by two evil spirits. She is alone in her belief, and as she fights desperately to save their souls she fears for her own safety, while James seductively raises doubts in the reader’s mind about the governess;s sanity. Are the ghosts merely a figment of her tortured imagination? This complex scenario reaches it’s most dramatic and frightening of climaxes.

Also included in this volume is a lesser known tale of haunting, Owen Wingrave, which not only raises questions about ghosts but also about the nature of fear and courage.

Beautifully constructed and chillingly realised, these two tales are amongst the finest examples of the ghost story genre.

Looks like it’s unpopular literary opinions time! And as a self-proclaimed lover of gothic fiction and a massive fan of ghost stories this is going to be even more blasphemous. So here goes: I don’t think The Turn of the Screw is very good. I didn’t find it scary, I didn’t find it exciting, I didn’t find it atmospheric or tense or any of those other descriptions people use for this book and I didn’t find it either surprising or thought-provoking. After all the hype surrounding this novella, all the praise for Henry James as a master of the ghost story, I’m afraid I rather found myself feeling supremely underwhelmed by it. That’s not to say I thought it was ‘bad’ or that I actively ‘disliked’ it – it was certainly interesting to read it knowing how much of a classic it is and how well discussed certain aspects of it are, but as a story it did pretty much nothing for me and left me feeling, if anything, rather neutral.  I got on a little better with the second, much lesser known, story in this book, Owen Wingrave. But neither story, I would say, are ‘among the finest examples of the genre’.

The Turn of the Screw, famously, tells the story of a governess who believes the children in her care are being corrupted by evil spirits and the efforts she goes to protect them. Equally, if not more, famous is the critical debate surrounding the governess’s own sanity. Is she just imagining the ghosts? Are they real? Are they merely representations of her own sexual frustration? Blah blah sexist-freudian-wank blah. The actual story when you get down to it, however, is a pretty simple piece of genre writing and was viewed as such for a long time after it was published. I, personally, don’t think that there’s any doubt the ghosts do exist – the governess describes the ghost of a man she’s never met too well for that. The problem though is that I also have no doubts that (whether James intended it or not) the governess herself is a deeply unhinged individual with an obsessive and paranoid personality, who latches onto first impressions and performs some of the most astounding logical gymnastics to reach the conclusions that she does. As such, although I believe that the ghosts in the book are real I have absolutely no reason to believe that they are evil. This interpretation (and it is only my interpretation) makes it less a terrifyingly tense story about whether the spirits will succeed in corrupting the children and more a gothic comedy of  errors –  ‘lets watch how the governess leaps to ridiculous assumptions, fucks everything up, and ruins everyone’s lives’  – or at least that’s how it felt reading it.

The children, I think, I was meant to find creepy.  I didn’t. I found the governess’s instant ‘they’re such perfect angelic little cherubs!’ attitude worrying – it’s a deeply unhealthy attitude for anyone working with children to have – but the children themselves simply weren’t scary. Miles was weird and he spoke like a grandad, but it was more irritating than sinister. He never creeped me out but I did  keep thinking that his dialogue was better suited to somebody wearing velvet slippers and smoking a pipe. (Sidenote: any woman who allows herself to be refered to as ‘my dear’ by a ten-year-old will get no sympathy from me ever). Of course a massive part of while the adult-child relationships didn’t work for me is because of the values and expectations in the time this was written and that, since The Turn of the Screw, creepy children have become rather a staple of the horror genre. By my modern standards Miles doesn’t read as normal but he was hardly creepy enough to be creepy; he just came off as a child written by somebody who couldn’t write children (unfair, I know, and almost certainly untrue, but that’s how he came across). So with neither the ghosts or the creepy children providing me with scares I was left with an awkward little story written by an unreliable narrator whose writing style I didn’t particularly like.

As a result although I know that this is hugely influential story and that many people love it, and find it absolutely tense and atmospheric and everything the blurb claims, I just failed to click with it on every level. It was ‘interesting’, I suppose, and I’m sure I could have some wonderful debates about the story – but I would enjoy them much more than I enjoyed the actual reading of it.

Owen Wingrave I much prefered. It’s a lot less of a ghost story – the supernatural element being more of a deus ex machina than anything else – and it’s certainly not a scary ghost story, but I felt a lot more invested and interested in the characters than I did in The Turn of the Screw, probably because they felt more realistic. Essentially though it’s an anti-military, anti-violence fable. Owen Wingrave, the sole male descendent of a deeply military family decides to quit the army after deciding that war is a repugnant and needless activity that he wants no part of. His family and his implied love interest disapprove and aspersions are made against his bravery. Conveniently enough for everybody involved though there’s a haunted room in the house where not even the bravest soldiers of the family have dared spend a night! It’s all a bit neat and convenient and the ghost story element of it really is just a  slightly clumsy tool for the moral of the tale, which could probably have been delivered better with a more mundane example of bravery (there are plenty of ways for a pacifist to prove bravery or ‘worth’ that don’t involve ghosts). The ending is rather abrupt too but it’s a nice little story none the less.

Over all though my experience with this book wasn’t at all what I’d hoped. I think I probably expected a bit much from it, but even without those disappointed expectations I don’t think I’d ever class either of these two stories as particularly great examples of the ghost story genre – the master of which I’d say is M.R. James.


1 Comment

Filed under Novellas, Reviews

One response to “The Turn of the Screw AND Owen Wingrave, Henry James

  1. Pingback: The Aspern Papers AND The Turn of the Screw, Henry James | Lulu's Bookshelf

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