Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Published: October 1898 by Macmillain
(Amazon / Goodreads)

Synopsis: A young governess arrives at a secluded country estate, hired by the manor’s often-absent master to look after his orphaned niece and nephew. The young woman, a parson’s daughter, is immediately charmed by eight-year-old Flora—and Miles, two years older, seems like a perfect little gentleman when he is unexpectedly sent home from his boarding school.

But Miles’s steadfast refusal to reveal the cause of his expulsion is troubling, as are the staff’s whispered stories about the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, the mysterious valet, Peter Quint, both of whom are now dead. Most disturbing of all are the spectral figures wandering the grounds of Bly that only the new governess can see: a woman and a dark man who seem to take a special interest in Miles and Flora. No longer sure of what is real and whom she can trust, the governess desperately tries to hold on to her sanity and protect the innocent children from forces too sinister to name.

A literary masterpiece whose mysteries are open to endless interpretation, The Turn of the Screw has been haunting readers for more than a century.

It's been awhile since I have read a classic. Legit read a classic, a book published in the 19th century or earlier. That would probably be The Wizard of Oz which I read in June. It's been even longer since I can say that I enjoyed a classic written in the 19th century. That distinction lies with a Henry James novel I read in February, The Portrait of a Lady. Therefore I was excited to read another Henry James novel this month and enjoyed his work just as much as I had in February. He's quickly becoming a favorite author for me.

And while The Portrait of a Lady was James' response to Regency Romances ala Jane Austen, The Turn of the Screw is his response to the Gothic Horror of the time (there are even some direct references to some of the more popular books within the genre). It plays on certain tropes from those kind of novels including the main character being a governess, the creepy old house full of secrets, and even the idea of ghost, and haunted houses. As a fan of those types of stories and also someone who has been a little critical of them it was great to see not only the similarities but what was taken as a good part of the genre and what was changed to act as a sort of criticism. It's one of the things I love about Henry James. It's like he sees what is popular and thinks "I can make that better" or better yet "I can make that more realistic." Henry James is a writer for readers (an absurd thing to say but I hope you get what I mean).

But what he does really well with these ideas is create a real atmospheric sense of mystery and unease. I have been a little disappointed by some of the ghost stories that I have been reading this month. They just didn't create the spooky sense of unease that I look for in these types of stories. But Henry James did create that. His ghosts weren't the kind that went around "haunting" people and scaring them around corners of the house (although that did happen). These are the kind of ghosts that were even more sinister. they were influencing people to do what they want. The point definitely cam across and despite the slow start by the conclusion of the book I was on the edge of my seat curious about what was going to happen and slightly overwhelmed by the conclusion.

And after reading two of his novels, I noticed that another thing that Henry James does really is create interesting and complex characters that you can't help but like, even when you hate them. In this case we have the unnamed main character, the governess. While she is not the most complex and interesting of characters it is still pretty easy to connect with her and her story. Perhaps it is Henry James' narrative style. It's like you are sitting in front of a campfire listening her tell you a ghost story. And the secondary characters are definitely well-rounded and interesting. Both the two children and the two ghosts are interesting and keep you guessing throughout the entire story.

The Turn of the Screw is a novella or short story so it's definitely a quick read. If you are looking for a quick and interesting classic ghost story to read around this time of year then I definitely suggest The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

I give The Turn of the Screw by Henry James an 8.5 out of 10 

Have you read The Turn of the Screw? What did you think? What are some of your favorite ghost stories and what do you look for to make them spooky? Leave me a comment with your thoughts and of course HAPPY READING!


  1. Ohhh this looks like a fun one for Halloween!

  2. Perfect and just in time for Halloween! I'm glad you liked it - I have it on my syllabus, we're reading it in class shortly! I'm pretty excited!

    Kristen @ One Chapter Ahead