The Turn of the Screw

turn of the screw

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, is a classic horror novel. For some reason, I always thought it was a book about torture, similar to Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I think I was taking the title a little too literally… and morbidly.

At any rate, I picked up a copy while wandering at Pioneer, read the back cover, and discovered that it was actually a ghost story – and it looked like a good one! Awesome! I ignored the 80’s illustration on the cover and bought the book anyway.

The Turn of the Screw turned out to be a very suspenseful, fast-paced horror story about a governess who starts seeing strangers around the house. Then she finds out the strangers used to work at the house… until they died. Then she realizes that the children can also see the ghosts, but they don’t want her to know that, which means the children actually want the ghosts to haunt them. And the children keep doing weird things to arrange private meetings with the ghosts (and without their governess.) Complicating all of this, the governess was instructed that she was never to communicate with her employer, under any circumstances. Also, she couldn’t really tell him anyway, because the kids won’t admit they see anything, so everyone would just call her crazy.

The book has a good balance of suspense, horror, and what-the-crap-is-going-on. It also does a good job of keeping the question open: is she haunted, or is she crazy?

SPOILER ALERT – here’s the problem: the “plot twist” at the end is that you never find out whether she’s haunted or crazy. That’s it. That’s the only plot twist. I mean, I was reading this, thinking, “Oh, man. Maybe the ghosts are gonna get the kids. Maybe the ghosts are good, and that’s why the kids want them. Maybe the kids killed the ghosts, and that’s why the ghosts are haunting them. Maybe the kids are gonna help the ghosts kill the governess. Maybe this other maid lady is dead, too, but nobody’s telling the governess. Maybe- maybe- maybe”…. I had a million maybes. And the problem is that all of my maybes were more interesting than the actual end of the book. Maybe I read too much weird horror. And maybe I just expect too much from a plot twist. But seriously – I could rewrite the last three pages of this book about 7 times, and come up with 7 better ways to end the book.

It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster slowly to the very top of the theme park, looking down over the precipice, feeling your breath catch in your throat, and then having the ride stop and the operator telling you to get out. Not because the roller coaster was broken – just because the entire ride was the suspense. You never actually get to experience the rest of the roller coaster.

I would recommend reading the book I’m considering writing based on this book. Once I figure out which ending to put in it. Sheesh. I understand why it’s popular – but the ending is a drag. ♦

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