The Turn of the Screw - Henry James
In both literature and film I've always avoided horror stories, ghost stories and other narratives in which the supernatural features prominently. Call me a wuss, but that's the way it is for me. This may be the reason I've not read this novella before. The other reason may be that my only two prior experiences of reading Henry James are mixed. I liked [b:The Portrait of a Lady|264|The Portrait of a Lady|Henry James||1434368] (read circa 1976) and I remember nothing about [b:The Golden Bowl|259020|The Golden Bowl |Henry James||118576] (read circa 1978) other than that my university lecturer said that many people refer to it as The Golden Bore. Whatever my reaction to it at the time, it clearly didn't inspire me to read more James. However, in the spirit of continuing to overcome old literary prejudices and because I know my friend Jemidar loves it (and she and I agree on most things literary), I decided to put aside my aversion to ghosts and my relative indifference to the works of Henry James and finally read The Turn of the Screw.

The first thing I discovered was that this story is not really about ghosts. Or at least it may be to some people, but it wasn't to me. There are lots of different interpretations of the work and in writing it, James did a service to both literary critics and graduate students of English literature. Is it a ghost story? Is it a horror story? Is it a psychological portrait of a liar? Or of an hysteric? Or of a woman in the process of a mental breakdown? What really happens at the end? There's lots to think about and the best thing of all is that there's no right answer to any of the questions.

Probably most people know that the plot concerns an unnamed young governess sent to a country house to look after two children. She believes that she sees the ghosts of the former governess and the manservant with whom the governess had an affair and is rapidly convinced that the children are in communion with these ghosts. The governess becomes obsessed with the idea of breaking the evil hold the ghosts have over the children, with shocking results.

I'm going with the theory that the governess is mentally ill and that the narrative describes her breakdown into acute psychosis. But maybe that's just because I'm not a fan of ghost stories. What interests me even more than the psychological portrait of a woman falling over the edge into madness (if that's what this is all about) is the metafiction element of the narrative. The story is told to the reader by someone to whom someone else has told the story, which was in turn told to him by the governess at the centre of the story. The issue of narrator reliability - an issue I always find fascinating - is increased threefold.

The major problem I have with the work is James' style. I remember little about the style of [b:The Portrait of a Lady|264|The Portrait of a Lady|Henry James||1434368] and [b:The Golden Bowl|259020|The Golden Bowl |Henry James||118576]. However, I'm well aware of James' reputation for being a difficult writer. If the writing in this work is any indication, my main objection is that he never met a punctuation mark he didn't like, with the notable exception of what I call a full stop and those from North America call a period. This form of punctuation he tended to avoid. Consequently, James never wrote a sentence that he didn't feel could be improved by the insertion of eight commas, six semi-colons and four dashes. His passion for punctuation meant that I had to re-read many sentences to make sure I had understood them correctly. It's probably just as well that the work is so short, or having to do so may have driven me as mad as the governess. On the other hand, it may be that the choppy way in which the punctuation breaks up the sentences is a reflection of the governess' disturbed thought processes. The literary analysis possibilities of this work are clearly endless.

I'm very glad to have read this with James fan Jemidar. If it weren't for all the sentences I had to re-read, it would have been worth five stars. As it is, it exceeds a four star rating, if for no other reason than I have been given so much to think about.