Review: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw is probably the most widely-analyzed piece of literature to come out of the 1890s (and certainly the most widely-analyzed of Victorian-era horror fictions). Its plot concerns nothing spectacularly unique, as far as ghost stories go; and yet this, James’ most consummate novel, is one of the more ingeniously constructed ghost stories in the English language. The Turn of the Screw’s greatest strength lies in its exploration of the complex web of doubts that linger in the back of its central character’s brain, which mirror in many ways the reservations that occur in the mind of a reader of ghost stories. This curious inversion of the relationship between reader and writer sets the stage for a matryoshka doll of a story that falls into itself, layer upon layer, numerous times throughout its scant hundred pages of text.

The Turn of the Screw is almost a condensation of every motif present in the archetypal English ghost story, though its scope is more American in its convolutions. Henry James, who penned several other ghostly tales alongside his more mainstream fiction, succeeds here so supremely because of his near-obsession with the ambiguity of ambiguities. Wilde called it ‘a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale,’ and that is a fitting assessment: The Turn of the Screw envelops us in a fog of doubt and suspicion, placing us in its narrator’s head and forcing us to see mysterious events through her eyes: there is no third-person narration here to challenge our inevitable disbelief; instead we must rely on the facts as presented by a narrator who is, quite possibly, delusional…but then, is she?

The plot concerns the isolation of a governess at a sprawling country estate where she is left in charge of two children who seem to have fallen under the influence of a menace that may or may not be supernatural. As the story evolves, however, we are forced to question how much of what our narrator is telling us is accurate; The Turn of the Screw predates, and yet also exemplifies, the idea of the ‘unreliable narrator’ which was to have such an influence on the Moderns. Its subject matter lends itself, however, to this device and it remains one of the more successful examples of the technique.

The Turn of the Screw is quite possibly the death rattle of literary Gothicism—the final ‘key work’ in a century-long movement—and so it is quite fitting that it so encapsulates the entire tradition of the Gothic. There would be later luminaries— Lovecraft, Blackwood, Du Maurier, and others—as the 20th Century began to find its darker voice, but The Turn of the Screw remains the curtain call of Gothicism proper: it is the beginning of the psychological horror story and the end of the ‘haunted castle,’ ‘perambulating skeleton,’ ‘woman-in-peril’ school. It still fascinates, simply because so much can be read into it. If we grant that its conclusions remain open-ended, we must also grant, however, that a great deal of its import is right there in black-and-white: The Turn of the Screw elucidates as much as it obscures and paves the way for the kind of cerebral terror that would become the hallmark of the next era of literary gloom: the Weird Tale.

Like all fictions that occupy a place of transition, The Turn of the Screw is a very difficult piece to pin down or define, and given its subject matter, this ambiguity seems entirely relevant to any assessment of its impact. James may not be the foremost writer of Victorian-era Gothic, but his opus is without question one of the finest examples of the movement: it is crisper than Stoker and more chilling than Le Fanu or Stevenson, more allied with Poe and hence more American in its focus: James may have been an Anglophile of the strictest sort, but his darkest work, The Turn of the Screw, entirely exemplifies the principles of the American Gothic and remains, with the stories of Poe, the strongest work in its canon.


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