The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘The story had held us […]’ – The narrative of The Turn of the Screw begins with an aura of leisured disappointment about it, mirrored in James’ style of combining short, sometimes abrupt, phrases into long sentences. Thus, although the first period comprises no less than sixty-two words, its initial elements flutter from parenthesis to parenthesis in a way that suggests indirection – or possibly mis direction. This ‘story’ after all, is not the story James is about to tell, something signalled subtly in his choice of adverbs and adjectives: it had left its audience only ‘sufficiently breathless’ and that it was ‘gruesome’ is termed an ‘obvious remark’ (emphasis added). Something more satisfying and subtle is about to follow.

‘[…] I remember no comment […] fallen on a child.’ – About half-way through its length, James’ opening sentence picks up some direction, and the reader’s attention is drawn to the important fact that this was a ghost – ‘a visitation’ – experienced by ‘a child.’ The initial choice of ‘visitation’ – as opposed to synonyms such as ‘haunting’ or ‘apparition’ (used in the next sentence) – implies the popular milieu of late nineteenth century spiritualism, in which mediums sensitive to such things were ‘visited’ from beyond the grave. This is a haunting, perhaps, with some purpose.

‘in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion’ – The gothic convention of an ‘old house’ ‘on Christmas Eve’ implies that the auditors of this story are somehow themselves caught up in the tales they tell each other. The telling of supernatural tales at Christmas was brought into vogue by Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol had been published in 1843. The association of Christmas with the supernatural, however, is a great deal older that this, being found in medieval texts, such Sir Gawain and Green Knight. Yule, indeed, was once the Germanic New Year, and it long preserved certain associations similar to those familiar from the Celtic New Year, Halloween.

‘the same sight that had shaken him.’ – That the mother sees the ghost independently of her ‘little boy’, is the first of the narrative’s ‘turns of the screw.’

‘Douglas’ – The failure to introduce this character is deliberate. The effect of a ghost story can depend on a number of conventions designed to create the illusion of real events. This is why so many modern horror films employ the ‘found footage’ technique, popularised by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project. Although the reader is fully aware that he or she is reading a literary fiction, this awareness is suspended by such references as this one to ‘Douglas’, implying that the text is a personal one, intended for a small circle of friends who would know who ‘Douglas’ is. It is therefore more likely to be the recording of a ‘real’ event.

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Henry James
the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Available HERE where you can read the opening chapters.

The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul