Struggling through Horrid Mysteries, and I’m sad to say it has been a struggle through a turgid translation of an, at times, complicated story. But struggling through Horrid Mysteries has brought to mind a few other books that I’ve had to battle through.
Include amongst these have been Frankenstein and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
The Turn of the Screw is a good example of a novella I came to partially knowing the story and expecting a thrilling read. It is quite a long time now since I read it, but I remember finding the language and style much more difficult than I expected. It quite put me off reading James for a long time, until quite recently when I picked up The Other House, which I enjoyed immensely and which gave me a whole new impression of his work and a renewed enthusiasm to return to his other works, and in particular The Turn of the Screw to see if previous prejudices have been changed.
Despite this struggle, The Turn of the Screw as a story has been one that has engaged me for years through various media. It has probably become one of those classic stories of which the plot is much more widely known than the book itself.
The black and white film The Innocents made in 1961 is still one of my favourite ghost films, perfect for putting in the DVD player on a story autumn night. The script is by John Mortimer, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess.
The story was also been used as the basis for an opera, written in 1954 by Benjamin Britten. Now not normally a great lover of the opera, but I was drawn to see this one when performed in Newcastle purely because it was Turn of the Screw.
The production did help me to see opera in a new light and did lead me to explore other 20th century operas. It is a very atmospheric piece and in many ways not what I expected from an opera. From fact that there are very few players on stage you don’t get the grand operatic choruses and set pieces, there are actually very few songs in there, unlike a musical you don’t come out humming the tunes.
For all the excellent productions and interpretations of the story are necessarily balanced by the disasters. I remember a new BBC production a couple of years ago, which was greatly anticipated and totally failed to live up to its hype.
The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, in the mold of M R James and the other great late-Victorian ghost story tellers; precisely because we don’t know where the ghosts are. Whether they are in the mind of the unnamed governess, in the minds of the children or actually real in the house and park we are never quite sure. The audience remains as unnerved as the characters. The BBC failed on that score and that was their undoing.
I read recently Deborah Blum’s very readable account of Victorian spiritualism and the development of the Society of Psychical Research (Ghost Hunters, Century 2007). I wasn’t aware until then that James’ brother William was a psychologist and a leading light in the Psychical Research community from the mid 1880s. I’m sure someone, somewhere has already examined the links between his investigations at the time and the themes in Turn of the Screw.
I’ve put James back in my to read pile and hopefully I will get more out of it, but whatever the result, the story remains in my mind as one of those classics to which I return time and time again.