The Turn of the Screw

Dear Mr Henry James,

If it wasn’t already clear in my review of Heart of Darkness, my fascination with a book and the level of ambiguity with which it’s written tend to correlate quite well. When reading your wonderful novel The Turn Of The Screw, it struck me that not only must you have discovered this, but you had so clearly set yourself a challenge to see how much of a novel’s particulars you could keep under wraps while still maintaining my interest in the story. Well, Mr James, I’m pleased to report that you have succeeded – not entirely successfully, I might add, but certainly with enough bravura to warrant my writing you this letter of congratulations. Of course, it certainly helps that you pandered to my literary interests in two noticeable ways – your story occupies the Gothic genre, which I’m sure you know is among my favourite genres, and your use of narrative voice in the novel has, I’m sure you’d admit, been conspicuously crafted to seduce me into admiring your writing. I know, sir, that you died 100 years ago, but I can’t help but feel flattered that you would so blatantly write your novel for my benefit. I hope to do justice to your kindness throughout the remainder of this missive.

I think the thing I love most about your novel is how it is impossible to divorce the events of the story from the psychology of the narrator. To me, Mr James, our governess and storyteller is more than simply an unreliable narrator – she is an unstable one, and that adds a delicious air of uncertainty to the already unsettling nature of the story. To me, this creates two distinct possibilities for the novel when coupled with the ambiguously described events of the book: either our narrator has taken a complete flight of fancy and everything that follows is the result of her delusions, or else the events she describes are real, and we must take the story as fact. Both possibilities carry horrifying consequences, especially in light of the books shocking and brilliant ending, which I feel is one of the few parts of the story we can accept as concrete and inarguable. I wish I could go more into specifics, Mr James, but given that your book is well over 100 years old, I’m keen to avoid spoilers if I can so as not to sully it’s wonders for any future readers who stumble across this letter.

I thought your framing device, though a little corny, was excellent in bringing me into the story with a little humour and a lot of intrigue, nicely establishing the air of suspense that goes on to pervade and characterise the novel. There are several other wonderful touches to sustain this atmosphere: the oxymoronic descriptions of the children, the poor-sighted confidant in Mrs Grose, the isolation of their situation, the confusingly sparse descriptions of our antagonists (and how they came to be identified so unnaturally) and the creepy architecture of the house all contribute in making this a grimly compulsive read – I dreaded each page turn, and each reveal was met with a small gasp of shock.

Yes, Mr James, I think it would be fair to say that I was enthralled by your story. I mentioned earlier that it was not entirely successful though, which leads me onto my final note. One interesting aspect of parody is the way it can taint what came before it. The James Bond films of the 1970’s are a good example of this; the films themselves haven’t changed, but in a post-Austin Powers, post-Kingsmen cultural landscape, you view them differently now compared to how you would have viewed them upon their release – usually by enjoying them in a much more ironic way. In The Turn of the Screw, I often found elements in the story which, though written with serious intent, and likely received equally seriously upon initial release, have since been lampooned in popular culture to the point where it’s difficult to suppress a giggle upon reading them now – hysterical behaviour in our female characters and obvious cliffhangers at the end of chapters being two notable examples. I wish it were otherwise, Mr James, as I know this was not something you could have foreseen. Nevertheless I hope to warn contemporary readers of this anomaly so as not to affect their enjoyment of your marvellous book. Rest in peace, good sir, and I look forward to reading more of your literary works in future.

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