The Turn of the Screw, and faux-scary Halloween decorations.

I live in Australia; hence the British spelling, frequent bouts of spell-check rage at WordPress, and, according to an American friend, a distinct lack of sugary breakfast options. Even worse, we don’t celebrate Halloween.

I know, right?!

Apparently, a bunch of old people like whining about cultural imperialism and the Australian identity, but hello? Why wouldn’t you want to import a holiday with candies and costumes and faux-scary decorations?

(The one and only time I went trick-or-treating in my neighbourhood, I got a long lecture about how how we should be proud of our national history, yada yada, and was rewarded for my attention by a grudgingly presented muesli bar).

Then again, Australians barely celebrate Christmas as it is, or at least in comparison to our European counterparts, so anything extra is probably too hard to scrounge up.

Why would a 130 page book need to be abridged anyway??

So my version of celebrating Halloween Down Under is reading Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw, first published in 1898.

A governess is hired for two orphans adopted by a rich guy who, incidentally, dislikes children (he and I have that in common). She then starts seeing ghosts that are supposedly trying to entice the kids away from their nice, safe existence? Or trying to make the kids commit some sin? Or existing only in her head all along?

You see, Henry James, like most of his Victorian contemporaries, didn’t like his writing to mention anything “base” (immoral/evil/anything to do with the lower class). Meaning, of course, that modern readers are a little ‘wtf?’ when it comes to discerning what he doesn’t say – what the ghosts actually did. Supposedly Victorian readers knew immediately what Henry James was attempting to talk around, but that easy understanding has been lost over the years.

Speaking of whom, Henry James sure loves his punctuation. It’s like reading a academic’s first attempt at prose. Have an example sentence:

There were exactly states of the air, conditions of sound and of stillness, unspeakable impressions of the kind of ministering moment, that brought back to me, long enough to catch it, the feeling of the medium in which, that June evening out of doors, I had had my first sight of Quint, and in which too, at those other instants, I had, after seeing him through the window, looked for him in vain in the circle of shrubbery.

That’s one educated governess.

Anyway, it was rather enjoyable to read this book out loud, probably because of all the commas, but I did have to wait until I was home alone to do so. Because, awkward. Still, I’m quite happy we don’t write like that anymore; how on earth would we have invented Twitter?

Henry James

The Turn of the Screw was an ok story; open-ended but not so substantial that I spent any large amount of time attempting to interpret the story. The majority of the book was read on a beach (which probably would have ruined my burgeoning Halloween vibe, if the novella’s author hadn’t already done so).

Evidently, Henry James was going for that ‘it’s scary because it’s so realistic’ technique, by choosing to avoid flickering lights/eerie wails/etc, but I think he went a little overboard, since the ghosts enjoyed doing nothing more than standing and staring at you for no apparent reason.

It seems that Henry James’ ghostly apparitions would do well to join Dracula at a bar for a couple of beers, as well as a discussion on how much it sucks not being able to do anything remotely villainous and/or frightening. All the while, being shunned by the next table, filled with the likes of Mr Rochester’s mad wife, Mr Hyde, and pretty much every Edgar Allan Poe character.

So what I’m going to do is decide that The Turn of The Screw is a psyhocological thriller: an enraged governess goes crazy after realising she has less authority then a condescending 10 year old (?) boy, due, of course, to her lesser status in society, which also leaves her unable to catch her douchebag employer’s eye, despite inexplicably falling in love with him after two short meetings. Mmm, see? Much more satisfying, and quite an excellent read.

This, my dearest readers, is what Jane Eyre should have been.

Happy Halloween, my pets!

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17 responses to “The Turn of the Screw, and faux-scary Halloween decorations.

  1. Happy Halloween. The best way to spend it is with a nice hot cup of rum and cider. I must read this little story, had no idea Henry James tried to do the wicked scary. Nice review, lady. ps: the cover is awesome;)

    • Happy Halloween to you too. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cup of rum and cider? Or even cider, for that matter.
      I love the cover, I mean it’s completely wrong for the book’s era, but awesome because of that.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. No Halloween! What’s this world coming to? I don’t blame you guys in Australia. Halloween is so overrated. Just another bit for advertisers to funnel sugary frenzy to already hyper kids to create the nightmarish eve parents may already have to deal with on a daily basis–only on Halloween the sugar increases this by 10! So, like a good girl, I stay home. Hey, at least you got a healthy Muesli bar. Dracula must have really stuck with you :) Have you noticed, that many of the books written by men during those times make it as though women were a bit…paranoid in some way or another? Curious. Brilliant review.

    • Haha, thanks for making me feel better. To be honest, I prefer chocolates to lollies (we don’t really say ‘candy’ in Australia, actually), but dressing up is fun. Besides, as a kid, it was awesome being let to walk around in the dark.

      Dracula was such a disappointment! I was really excited to read it, but it was repressed to within an inch of its life, making for a very dull book.

      As for women, they were seen in history as being a bit unstable, due to their hormones and “irrational” nature. This is reflected in most classic literature. What I thought was worse, was that even women thought of themselves as the weaker sex for the same reasons.

  3. That must blow not having Halloween, I mean, hello, awesome costumes AND FREE CANDY THAT WON’T GET YOU KIDNAPPED.

    Clearly.

    Also, I kind of love that 80s fab cover. It almost looks like an RL Stine book.

    And I am pretty sure a ghost standing and staring at me would freak me out, kind of like when people do that, it freaks me out, SO a ghost would even more!

    • Haha, yes not getting kidnapped is a definite plus. I think the kid-friendly streets right near the schools are more open to trick-or-treaters over here, but no one decorates their house or gets that much candy :(

      The cover was pretty awesome wasn’t it? It wasn’t the one I’d read, but all the other covers had depressed looking children on it, which was … uh … depressing.

      Hmm, but wouldn’t you get used to a staring ghost once it turned up for the sixth time? I mean, a person would be scary, because then they’d be a stalker and possibly plotting your ultimate demise, but the ghosts just like staring every so often.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. hahaha. I’ve always been curious about this book. I’ve only read one Henry James novel, A Portrait of a Lady, and …. I didn’t really like it.
    I really want to know what the “base” things the ghosts were doing that he wouldn’t say!?? That’s bizarre.

    • Well, the ghosts used to be two people that looked after the children. The most I could figure out for sure was that the guy was an alcoholic. They two were possibly having an affair? Or pedophiles? Or, shock horror, making children lie for them? I have no clue…

      Ooh, what was really bizarre was that the governess couldn’t talk about it to the children, because if she brought up the ghosts to them, she could go to gaol for corrupting kids with supernatural tale. Now that’s really bizarre.

  5. Sadly, I know “Turn of the Screw” painly as a punchline in “Annie Hall.”

    The only Henry James novel I’ve read is “The American.” That was back in school. It didn’t make me want to read anything else by him.

    You know, someone in Australia should organize a package tour of the States during Halloween. You could stop at people’s homes and pass out candy to pint-sized Jedi warriors and Disney princesses.

  6. I don’t celebrate Halloween either but I love autumn. And no, I am not one of Henry James’s fans. In fact I actively despise his style of writing and his books have been among these rare novels which I simply couldn’t finish, although not for the lack of trying. Thanks for the review but no, it does not make me like the guy or his novels better. Probably I have a bad literary taste – it happens (and it could have been much much worse). An Audrey Hepburn dress – yummy!

    • I can’t imagine having to read an entire novel by Henry James, simply because his writing is so … ugh. I can’t imagine him being published if he was a writer nowadays, but the story isn’t too bad. I’m sure you don’t have bad literary taste – certain people, I find, seem to think that a classic is a synonym for literature. Which can make for some painful reading.

  7. Great review! I read this book for a class on American Realism and also had mixed feelings on it — it was frustrating everything that wasn’t said! I had to write a paper on it, so I did a lot of research of scholarly articles on it, and there is a huge debate going on amongst academics about whether the ghosts are real or whether the governess has gone crazy like you suggest — honestly, I, too, didn’t find myself caring enough to take a position one way or the other.

    • I don’t envy you having to write a paper on this book – particularly when Henry James gives us such little info to go on! I noticed that academic debate (it was mentioned in the intro to my book), but figured that deciding everyone went crazy would improve the story considerably. Then again, this decision was a spur-of-the-moment thing whilst writing this post…

  8. I’m in Aus too and I reckon ( yay Aussie slang!) that one of the reasons why the nrth hemisphere holidays don’t quite grab us is because the seasons are all wrong. I mean, eggs in Autum? Where’s the reknewal of life that they symbolise? And death in spring – na, doesn’t work, and why don’t we get into Chrissy in a big way – steam pudding in 35 degrees ( centregrade)? Yuk. Salad and ham, or pasta salad.

    • Yay another Aussie! I think you’re right, but something that annoys me is that no one really decorates their house for Christmas. I’ve been overseas for the last two Christmases (is that a word?) and there were Christmas markets, & everyone’s house was decorated on the outside, shops went all out etc. I guess it’s far too hot to bother with that here, but I really wish people did :(

      PS I never thought about Easter being in the wrong season down here – good call! Guess I was too busy stuffing my face with chocolate …

  9. Pingback: 68. Bridget Jones’s… no! The Friande’s Diary | The Friande

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