A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about Horror and why I like reading it so much. Wanting to mix my love of the genre with my desire to read more classic novels I decided to pick up a copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. “What could go wrong”? I thought to myself as I left the shop weighed down with my new purchases. A Gothic Mansion, devilish ghosts, creepy children and a naïve Governess. This sounded like my perfect book and it would let me cross another classic novel off my Book list for the year. Well it transpires that quite a lot could go wrong as I embarked on a two day snooze fest that almost made me throw the book out of the window of a moving Tube carriage.
The Turn of the Screw is the tale of a governess sent to watch over a pair of orphaned siblings. While there she starts to see the ghosts of the recently deceased butler and past governess. Believing that the spirits are intending harm to the children she starts to try and come up with a way to save her charges and rid the house of the fearful apparitions.
That description in itself sounds amazing. It’s a classic gothic horror theme and very much in keeping with the other books coming out at the time. At the end of the 19th Century there was a huge rise in spirituality and mysticism. Any fans of Penny Dreadful novels will be able to tell you about Victorian style Séances and Novels like Dracula fuelled the rising demand for novels of the occult. In my mind Henry James came nowhere near the other writers of the period in terms of style or fear.
The writing style in the novel is unnecessarily heavy. This is supposed to be someone describing true events that have happened to them in the past. Rather than this feeling like a stream of consciousness it feels like a writer in his element, rolling around in high language and hyperbole. I usually love a good narrator but our governess feels more like a textbook in her style of retelling. More and more whilst reading this I found myself drifting into other thoughts. When I read a ghost story or horror novel I want it to grip me from the first phrase. Putting down the book should be a challenge for me but due to the high prose used here I found myself delighted to take a break.
My final problem was the fear, or lack thereof. Perhaps the Victorians had a different threshold for fear than we do today or perhaps I’ve just become desensitized to it due to the schlocky gore fests on TV today like Saw and Hostel. This book didn’t raise a single goose bump for me. There were no chills and at no point did I find myself worried about the characters.
So who should read this book? I hate answering this question with books I don’t like because my immediate answer is “no one.” However, fans of classic gothic horror should give this a read as it is an interesting look into the birth of a genre. If you don’t like really scary tales but want something a bit darker to read then it’s definitely worth a go. It’s a shame though. With night’s drawing close and a chill creeping into the air, with All Hallows Eve approaching and monsters rising once more into our imaginations, I wanted something to chill the very bones inside me.