The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

I have never been a Henry James fan. I quickly learned to Cliffs-notes the heck out of any James I ever had to read for school rather than read any more page-long sentences than absolutely necessary. The man loves his commas. But for whatever reason (shortness, probably!), I decided to actually read this novella when it was on my freshman comp syllabus, and I remember quite enjoying it! So I figured, when I found it on audio, that it would be a delightfully spooky start to this year’s RIP Challenge.

Well. Eh. I mean, yes, compared to all other Henry James I’ve “read,” this was fantastic. But I think that memory of awesomeness set the bar a liiiiiittle high on this listen!

The story is structurally excellent. It starts with a group of people sitting around some old inn or other chatting about spooky things, and this mysterious guy is like, “Dudes, I have the spookiest story.” And everyone else is like, “Do tell.” And MG is like, “Well, I mean, I don’t want to paraphrase, so let me send away for someone to mail me the well-worn manuscript I keep locked away in my house, it’ll be here in a couple days.” And everyone else is like, “‘Kay.”

And so the manuscript gets there, and then we’re in the story proper, which is of a governess who goes off to the country to take care of a couple kids, one of whom has recently been expelled from school for some unknown reason. While she’s there, she sees a creepy dude and then later a creepy lady, and she quickly ascertains/decides that these are the ghosts of some dead former employees of the estate. She also ascertains/decides that the kiddos can see these ghosts, too, and that a) the kids are keeping the ghosts a secret and b) the ghosts are influencing the kids in some creepy way. There’s a lot of skulking about and people appearing and disappearing and, spoiler?, that line between ascertaining and deciding becomes important in the end.

It’s a creepy little story on paper, but this audio version suffers from the same problem I had with The Eyre Affair — namely that the narrator seems to be more “reading words off a page” than “telling a ghost story.” I wanted and expected hushed voices and proper ghost story pacing, and I did not get those things.

And those things would have helped a lot with the things I had forgotten about the novella, which is that it is slow as all get out at the beginning, and then ends very abruptly, and the motivations of the characters are confusing or nonexistent. As a ghost story of indeterminate origin and unreliable narrator, I can forgive these problems, but if I have to listen to it as a strict retelling of some old manuscript, I’m gonna get a little antsy about them.

I think next time I find myself remembering this story fondly, I’ll grab a print copy and read it at two in the morning during a thunderstorm. Can’t get better ambiance than that!

Recommendation: I can’t recommend the audiobook, but I think the story is good for someone who wants a bit of a literary ghost story.

Rating: 7/10
(RIP Challenge)

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10 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

  1. Mary says:

    There must be a worthwhile audiobook version somewhere… surely this is too good an opportunity to pass up…

    Also, the commas! for real. I thought I was a rampant user of excessive commas, and then I met Henry James.

    I still say you should check out The Beast in the Jungle if you come across it… it's shorter and very similar, but I think it's a much later work and James was a different kind of writer.

  2. Alison says:

    I hope so! I really think the story needs a good audio.

    I will try out your jungle beast… do I need to bring a box to put all the extra commas in?

  3. Elizabeth Bauman says:

    I've read this book twice and the second time around I remembered the frustrations I had with it the first time (how it ends so abruptly, etc.). Still, I enjoyed the writing and the spookiness. I liked your review, too bad the audio version wasn't better! Tonight on TCM, if you get that channel, the movie based on this story, The Innocents, is playing. I haven't seen it myself so I have no idea how good it is nor if it resembles the story at all, but I'm hopeful it will be worth watching.

  4. Alison says:

    Elizabeth — glad it's not just me! I don't have this thing called cable, so movie night for me, but I might have to see if my library has it. Let me know if it's worth it!

  5. Kate says:

    I'd completely forgotten about the “hey, let me send off for this manuscript so I can tell you a creepy tale around the fireplace” beginning. What an odd way to frame the story! I remember now that it put me off reading it for quite some time since it was just tedious. Yes, I'm going to tell you a scary story! But no! Just wait.

    But come to think of it, that's become a relatively standard opening, hasn't it? I just finished The Woman in Black and it has a similar start: Here's my life, and it looks well and fine, but I'm scarred, so let me write this down for you, and then we have a ghost story.

    Interesting.

  6. Alison says:

    Kate — I love a good frame story! I always think they're so much fun because you're just that little bit offset from the story itself, and it makes you wonder where the story really comes from. This one was a little oddly done, though!

  7. Chrisbookarama says:

    I also listened to Turn because it was the only way it was going to happen. Henry and I don't get along. I had the bar set pretty low so I enjoyed it, to my surprise. My audio had 2 narrators, did yours? I wonder if it was the same version.

    Kate mentioned The Woman in Black starting the same way. I just finished The Eyes by Henry's pal Edith Wharton- again stories by the fireplace. It must have been a thing.

  8. Alison says:

    Chris — Yeah, there was a narrator for the manuscript fella and a narrator for the governess. So, barely two narrators! Also, who doesn't tell spooky stories by the fireplace (besides me)?

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