Digging Deep in the Stacks

By S. C. Green


I thought I’d see how far back I could reach for my selection, and circa 1898 is what I came up with. I’m not going to lie to you. Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw will be the longest 100 pages you’ll ever read. If you come at it from the writer’s perspective, however, I think it’s well worth the read.

Here’s the basic break down. A young woman is hired to be the governess over two children whose parent’s are dead. He starts by watching the youngest daughter until the her older brother returns from boarding school, expelled. Upon his return, the governess begins to catch glimpses of what she perceives as ghostly visitors with ill intent.

The downside to this novella is the flowery language the author uses. Many times it felt like I was drowning in a sea of words. It’s also worth noting that it was originally serialized in a magazine. This results in a recap at the beginning of almost every chapter, which leads to the temptation of skimming, which in turn would lead to missing key pieces of new material that are buried in those recaps. This makes sense if you had to wait months between reading a new section, but becomes quickly infuriating when reading all at once.

That out of the way, this book does have things to offer. In my opinion, it’s the best example of an unreliable narrator. James sets the story up with a nameless narrator who’s relating what his friend is telling of a story written by an old governess who is now dead. So right away we are three parts removed from the actual story. The account from the governess is entirely from her point of view. Not once did James stray from that which leads us to start questioning the governess’s sanity. You can spend hours debating whether or not these ghost were real or if they were all in the governess’s head. James wrote this so perfectly, you can’t point at anything that would sway one argument stronger than the other.

There are many other themes to grab at in The Turn of the Screw, but I think they all pale under the one I mentioned. I urge you to power through the 19th century writing and let me know what you think. You’ll be a better writer for it.