Thursday, September 1, 2011

{review} the turn of the screw

Henry James The Turn of the Screw (1898)

The Turn of the Screw  The Turn of The Screw and Other Short Novels (Signet Classics)  The Turn of the Screw: (RED edition) (Penguin Classics)

An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred...
Seriously, I'd forgotten the scariness contained within The Turn of the Screw and I beg you not to follow my example and reread it alone in an old dark house at night...

I keep persevering with Henry James although his sentence structure MAKES MY HEAD HURT. In an effort to work myself into a Jamesian mood, I picked up this novella again, after many years, and was reminded both why I want to persevere with James and why I find it so hard to do so.

Why I want to persevere: this novella is so spooky and most of the time you have no idea if it's because things are happening in the novella or things are happening in your head. It's a perfect mixture of obliquity of characterisation, not-quite-enough-information, and unreliable narrating, working to make the reader doubt every word on the page, then doubt herself for doubting.

Coupled with this is the classic set-up of an apparently innocent young woman sent into the country by a handsome but aloof employer to a spooky old castellated mansion to mind some freaky children (with "false little lovely eyes") with only the assistance of a seemingly loyal house-keeper. Oh, and the young woman is but the latest in a series of staff who've departed under mysterious circumstances. And there's plenty of candlelight...   
The apparition had reached the landing halfway up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where at sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from the garden. He knew me as well as I knew him; and so, in the cold, faint twilight, with a glimmer in the high glass and another on the polish of the oak stair below, we faced each other in our common intensity. He was absolutely, on this occasion, a living, detestable, dangerous presence. But that was not the wonder of wonders; I reserve this distinction for quite another circumstance: the circumstance that dread had unmistakably quitted me and that there was nothing in me there that didn't meet and measure him. I had plenty of anguish after that extraordinary moment, but I had, thank God, no terror. And he knew I had not—I found myself at the end of an instant magnificently aware of this. I felt, in a fierce rigor of confidence, that if I stood my ground a minute I should cease—for the time, at least—to have him to reckon with; and during the minute, accordingly, the thing was as human and hideous as a real interview: hideous just because it WAS human, as human as to have met alone, in the small hours, in a sleeping house, some enemy, some adventurer, some criminal. It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour, we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed, in life, between us; if nothing had passed, one of us would have moved. The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life. I can't express what followed it save by saying that the silence itself—which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength—became the element into which I saw the figure disappear; in which I definitely saw it turn as I might have seen the low wretch to which it had once belonged turn on receipt of an order, and pass, with my eyes on the villainous back that no hunch could have more disfigured, straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost.
Why I'm not so sure: as I would suggest is illustrated by the above passage, James' sentences are such hard work. My God, would it have killed him to shorten a clause or two?

Rating: 10/10

If you liked this... hard-core gothic, I think, rather than more James. Maybe some Poe?

The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin Classics)  The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings: Poems, Tales, Essays, and Reviews (Penguin Classics)  The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin English Library)

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