The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This review needs a short introduction.

A couple of weeks ago, I gathered my courage, turned on all the lights in my house, and watched The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. And I loved it.
It’s a very, very loose adaptation of the novel by the same title by Shirley Jackson, but Mark Flanagan manages to translate the Gothic novel into modern times while doing an amazing job at characters and story.

So obviously when I heard that The Haunting of Bly Manor was coming out really soon, I got very exited and decided to read the book it was based on before watching the series. For those few souls who don’t know, The Haunting of Bly Manor is an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, a 1898 novella by author Henry James. The fact that the book was already on my very long reading list only made the choice easier.

Title: The Turn of the Screw

Author: Henry James

Genre: Horror, Gothic

Year: 1898

“Nobody but me, until now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.”

Well it would be, if something actually happened. But let’s start from the beginning.

The story begins with a frame: a group of people sitting around the fire telling ghost stories, until one of them announces he has a most horrible one to narrate. Thus he retrieves a manuscript and start reading to the audience.

The manuscript is written by the hand of a young woman. She starts narrating from the moment she accepts the job of governess to two beautiful children, Miles and Flora, living in Bly Manor. They are orphans and their uncle is taking care of them, but he doesn’t want to ever be disturbed about anything: they are the governess’s responsibility, and hers alone.
The woman shrugs off her doubts when she is introduced to the children and the few people living in the manor. She soon strikes a friendship with Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and she enjoys walking the grounds in the late afternoon to relax. Until she starts seeing figures: a man on the parapet, a woman on the other side of the small lake. They want the children, but she’s ready to do anything to save them.

A closer look

I was ready to be creeped out when I started the book, but halfway through the first page I already started to regret my decision.

The writing is choppy, with sentences full of commas and asides. Every sentence is broken up in so many little pieces that it’s hard to follow them from beginning to end. I got lost more than once even though the language itself and the events are pretty straightforward.
Also, I don’t see the need for the frame in the beginning: it’s just a boring way to introduce the story, and we never even go back to it at the end. The story itself doesn’t affect any of those people directly. So what’s the point? To provide an introduction to the governess’s story? I believe it would have served the purpose better if it just started with her narration.

The other big problem of the story is that nothing really happens. Even the ghosts are not scary at all. She sees them, they just look for a while and then disappear. Where’s the horror I was promised? Miles is creepier than the ghosts, and he’s just a kid.
The whole time we are left to wonder if the ghosts are real or if the governess is losing her mind. No one else seems able to see them, and even Mrs. Grose, while wanting to believe her because of their friendship, starts to have doubts by the end.

And this is probably the one redeeming quality of the story. You can pretty much read anything you want into it: want the governess to be crazy? Just say the ghosts are only in her mind. Want the ghosts to be real? Just say the other people are only pretending not to see them. Want to make the children even creepier? Say they ghosts possess them or, even better, that they are dead and ghosts themselves. Look close enough at the text and you can probably find enough proof to go in any of these directions, and probably more.

But aside from the liberty of interpretation the text leaves to the audience, this book has very little in the way of horror, and the only Gothic thing about it is the manor in the countryside. No memorable characters, no clear story arc, and Miles is a little bitch. There, I said it. Even the ending leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion.

So, to wrap it up: read it if you’re a fan of classic Gothic horror stories, but don’t go in expecting much horror at all. Or much story. I mean, at least it’s short, right?

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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