The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Reading this story was a lot like standing in line opening weekend for a blockbuster you waited a year to see, and being underwhelmed. I was disappointed. I've heard about this story as being one of the best ghost stories ever written. I was so excited to read it. So excited was I, I had to download it to my Kindle to read right away, even though I have this story in one of my paperback collections. I love psychological horror, but I don't think a good psychological horror novel should leave the reader feeling as detached as I did with this story. I also felt that Mr. James spent so much time in writing a stylistically appealing story, using just the right turn of phrase to pretty up his narrative, that the story got lost in translation. I was surprised to realize that I had gotten to the end. I was like, "What?" After all the slow going, and slow build that never got anywhere, it was "wham!" Sigh! Not sure what to think of this one.
I will be honest and say I had trouble with this story. I had to work really hard to read it and not skim the words to move ahead. I really resist that when I'm reading. There is no point in reading a story if you don't understand the intent behind it. I like to read every word and take things in. On the downside, I like a pay off to my reading, especially if it's not a particularly easy story to read. But, this story was hard to decipher for hidden intent.
I saw some gems in it: the menace of two children who seemed like angels, but had a decidedly unangelic side. The governess who started to doubt her own reason and sanity, but was dead on in her understanding of what was going on. The apparitions that should have inspired dread in me, but somehow didn't. I spent time waiting to feel unease. It never got there.
Please don't misunderstand me. I love subtle horror. I prefer it. But the impact of the horror, the feel of the gothic has to be there. It has to be planted in one's mind so that the power of the threat, or its aftermath, is felt. I never felt the true impact with this story.
On the positive side, I felt that the psychological results of the 'demon children' on caregivers was translated pretty well. You could see the confusion and the distress that these beautiful, seemingly perfect children was having on the governess and the cook. It was interesting to see the governess have discussions with a child, that seemed incongruously adult. Discussions with an intellectual equal who will go for the jugular, so one has to be prepared for the worst. I felt that. At times, Miles did exude a menace that I wanted to feel. I felt the governess's anxiety at being in a situation that was beyond her control. Not sure that she was doing the right thing. And fearing for the safety of herself, those around her, and the children in her charge. But it was in a detached fashion. The power of horror is in bringing to light fears that we personally can identify with on some level, the more personal and visceral the better. If that barrier stays between the reader and the circumstance, then horror loses its ability to affect us.
I have to say that I will read my volume Ghost Stories by this author, and hope for the best. But, I won't be attempting any of his non-gothic works. Although he is a beautiful writer, there is not enough to engage on an emotional level, which is very important to me in my pleasure reading. My recommendation: If you are a person who is absolutely committed to a thorough immersion into gothic fiction/classic horror reading, you should read this. However, depending on your tastes in writing styles, if you are like myself in that you don't go for pretty writing with less substance, I wouldn't expect much from it. Although I wouldn't say I am the most sophisticated reader, I am sophisticated enough to realize that much enjoyment can be found in 19th century literature, but this story didn't deliver that for me.
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