Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review - The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

While I was working on my English degree, I read a ton of books. Some were very challenging because they were written in old English, which was difficult for me to understand because authors write very differently in contemporary books. Our sentences are shorter and our stories more action packed. I remember listening to one instructor read a very old text and it sounded like a foreign language. As I studied more and more writers, I found that though some seemed to write meandering sentences they were really packing a ton of information into them. When I studied one of Henry James's books, I found I was absorbed in his writing and no longer felt I was struggling to follow the story line.

I’m telling you this because today I’m going to review Henry James’ book, The Turn of the Screw, one of my favorite stories. James wrote many well-known novels: The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of a Dove, Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors. But my favorite is The Turn of the Screw. He had a tendency, as was the custom in his day, to write long convoluted sentences, though each word served a purpose.

For example here is the very first sentence of the book:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

See what I mean by convoluted sentences? But doesn’t it make you curious? What kind of story would leave them breathless? Why were they telling such stories on Christmas Eve? What kind of visitation was it? And why did it involve a child? Needless to say when I read this sentence I was hooked. I read this very short book (87 pages) in an afternoon. It took me a while because I was savoring the words and mining out the deeper meanings that were hidden.

Here’s the back liner of the book:

Widely recognized as one of literature’s most gripping ghost stories, this classic tale of moral degradation concerns the sinister transformation of two innocent children into flagrant liars and hypocrites. The story begins when a governess arrives at an English country estate to look after Miles, aged ten, and Flora, eight. At first, everything appears normal but then events gradually begin to weave a spell of psychological terror.

One night a ghost appears before the governess. It is the dead lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess. Later, the ghost of Miss Jessel herself appears before the governess and the little girl. Moreover, both the governess and the housekeeper suspect that the two spirits have appeared to the boy in private. The children, however, adamantly refuse to acknowledge the presence of the two spirits, in spite of indications that there is some sort of evil communications going on between the children and the ghosts.

Without resorting to clattering chains, demonic noises and other melodramatic techniques, this elegantly told tale succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tingling suspense and unspoken horror matched by few other books in the genre. Known for his probing psychological novels dealing with the upper classes, James in this story tried his hand at the occult—and created a masterpiece of the supernatural that has frightened and delighted readers for nearly a century.

Need I say more? I loved this little gem of a book. After reading it I wanted to try my hand at writing a spine-tingling, supernatural novel. I’m still working on the idea. I even started to plot it out last fall. And as soon as I finish a couple of other projects I plan to work on it again. All because of the influence of this book. The story was so gripping that even though it has been years since I read it, I still think about Miles and Flora and Mrs. Griffin.

The book has been made into a movie several times. Here’s a clip from the BBC version.

(Dover Publications Inc, published this novel. I bought my copy and have no financial interest in its success.)


  1. I don't think I ever read this one. I put a "Kindle for iPhone" app on my iPhone, and it lets me buy and read Kindle books on my iPhone. Even though it is small, I don't mind it... my eyesight is still pretty stellar:) Anyway, I just looked, and was able to buy 16 novels by Henry James on Kindle for 99 cents. Bargain reading:). I have read many of those, but I will start with Turn of the Screw today!

  2. Excellent-I've actually been planning on reading it very soon myself.

  3. I had no idea Henry James had written a ghost story. I'll have to check that out.

  4. Victoria: wow, that's an amazing price! My copy cost me a dollar, but that was only one book. You know how to bargain shop. I hope you enjoy this little gem of a novel. Let me know what you think.:)

  5. L.T., I know. I was surprised as well. You just never know what a writer has up his/her sleeve. :)

  6. I remember reading that one in an American Lit course (I think). Creeped me out completely - great writing :)

  7. Jemi, I know what you mean, but I found it so fascinating how he did it. Amazing.



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