The Turn of the Screw

November 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

screwThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James


I’ve had this story on my short-list for a long time, since it’s supposed to be a good ghost story. I saw it on sale on Audible, and figured it would be a good time to catch myself up with the story. Plus, Emma Thompson reads it! How could it be bad?

Well, if I had remembered the time I tried to listen to the audiobook of The Return of the King, I might have realized. During that experience, I made it through the entire first disc before realizing I hadn’t really heard a word of the story. The Turn of the Screw wasn’t quite that bad (I seem to have finally developed the kind of attention required to get the story out of the narration), but I still found myself having to focus nearly all of my attention on the story to stay with it. James’ narrative is dense and, frankly, boring. He spends a lot of time repeating himself, talking about the household.

Beneath all that is a ghost story that could be fairly interesting. The main character is a governess who has been hired to take care of two children, whom the governess loves, not just because she has a crush on their father, but also because they’re beautiful, innocent-looking children. The boy has just been expelled from school, though neither the governess or servant know exactly why. When the governess begins seeing what she determines are ghosts, she assigns their presence to the children, a position that’s reinforced by the servant, who says that their description matches that of previous servants at the house. The thing is, the governess is the only one who sees these ghosts, and the entire recollection is told from her point-of-view, giving us the fodder to wonder if the events are real, or only imagined by the governess. The children seem to see the ghosts, as well, though they come across as mischievous, and could very well just be playing along with her.

This approach to the traditional story has been done many times since, most notably and effectively in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Had James written a more effective narrative around the story, I think I would have liked it a lot. Instead, he buries the story beneath a near-impenetrable narrative full of theme and discussions on the nature of evil. I value story over style, and very much enjoy works that embrace both equally, but James veers too far into style, leaving the story to suffer.

As far as the audio production goes, I was surprised when the story began with a male narrator. It fits the story (the first chapter frames the story as one from a journal by the governess), but Richard Armitage’s name is nowhere on the cover. Thompson reads the story well, but I had trouble with her voices for the governess and the servant. The servant speaks in a shrill Cockney accent, which was more annoying than anything, and even the affect she gives the governess in her more emotional moments was bothersome. I came close to just turning the story off at that point, but I wanted to stick it out. It was just three hours or so.

In retrospect, I should have read this story instead of listened to it. If the story had seemed more substantial or interesting, I might have gone ahead and read the story after listening to it, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend more time than necessary with the story. It has a lot of potential, but suffers for being a bit too literary for my tastes.

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