The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘with quiet art’ – The narrator, at least, is fully conscious of Douglas’ showmanship, and probably the rest of the audience is too. That his story is ‘beyond everything’ implies a startling originality – as though his narrative is straining beyond itself to some unimaginable conclusion.

‘He seemed to say it was not so simple as that’ – To tie himself down to ‘sheer terror’ would limit the aura of mystery Douglas is trying to create. The narrator cannot even be sure of what Douglas’ reply to his question really signifies, hence: ‘He seemed to say […]’. The reader of the governess’s tale that follows the prologue would probably agree that ‘it was not so simple as that’.

‘His passed his hand over his eyes’ – as though he has to shield them from the vision he has before him. In a moment, the narrator speculates that, in looking at him, Douglas sees ‘instead of me, […] what he spoke of.’

‘ “For dreadful – dreadfulness!”’; ‘ “For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.”’ – Having previously rejected ‘sheer terror’, Douglas now, by contrast, begins to wallow in qualifiers, all of which point in slightly different semantic directions and together create a similar sense of uncertainty and mystification as that which he had aimed at before.

‘ “Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women.’ – The reason audiences like to be scared by ghost stories and horror movies is that, vicariously, they make people feel in jeopardy. The ‘fight or flight’ reflex is stimulated, creating a sense of euphoric energy and a sharpness known colloquially as an ‘adrenaline rush’ (after the main hormone that the body secretes under such circumstances). The fact that readers or cinema-goers are experiencing a fiction allows them to enjoy these feelings without any actual danger, but there is a hitch: the reaction can only be triggered if people are ‘really scared’, even though the whole thing is an illusion. Douglas is deliberately creating such an atmosphere – indeed ghost stories work almost entirely through atmosphere. The audience, however, needs to participate too. This is why ‘one of the women’ shouts out her approval, egging Douglas on to tell of something supremely horrible. Group dynamics are at work here, as is, perhaps, a flirtatious element, signalled by the woman’s ‘how delicious!’

‘He took no notice of her’ – To acknowledge her support would dissipate the sense of his own fixation on the horror of his tale. He is also, conceivably, ignoring her as part of a romantic ‘game’ in which denying attention to a woman can be a subtle way of attracting her.

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Henry James