Sunday, October 30, 2016

jokes perpetrated in higher spirits than ever - the dreadful dreadfulness of The Turn of the Screw

Henry James and his friend Douglas are guests for an extended time at a country house Christmas gathering, the old-timey English kind where ghost stories are told every evening.  James and Douglas collaborate on a hoax, a prank, whereby Douglas tells the guests that he knows a ghost story which is true and has never been told and blah blah blah and makes a great show of sending for the manuscript and so on.  James, who of course wrote the story, eggs everyone on as needed.

“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard.  It’s quite too horrible.”  This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It’s beyond everything.  Nothing at all that I know touches it.”

“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.  [See?]

He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it.  He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing gesture.  “For dreadful – dreadfulness!”

The most dreadful kind of dreadfulness of all, dreadful dreadfulness.  Ghost stories are hilarious.  Delays are introduced to turn the screw of the audience’s tension, thus the title.

The whole thing took indeed more nights than one, but on the first occasion the same lady put another question.  “What is your title?”

“I haven’t one.”

“Oh, I have!” I said.  But Douglas, without heeding me…

James about gives away the game there.  The manuscript, the story follows.  At this point, readers simulate joining the audience, which is now listening to a ghost story written by James that they believe is written by a character in the story, although if they had any sense of literary style they would be deeply suspicious:

But there was everything, for our apprehension, in the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone’s memory, attached to the kind old place.  (Ch. 6)

I mean, “perturbation of scullions,” it’s like a signature.  Meanwhile, the reader knows full well the whole thing is a fiction created by James but generally pretends that the longer story, in which a deranged governess in an isolated country house has her fun scaring the hell out of a superstitious housekeeper and two bizarrely perfect, demon-haunted children, is true.  “They performed the dizziest feats of arithmetic, soaring quite out of my feeble range, and perpetrated, in higher spirits than ever, geographical and historical jokes” (Ch. 18).  Weird kids.

The text has been picked to pieces in search of clues to solve various puzzles, to prove that the ghost is “real” and the governess crazy or that the governess is merely crazy – surely no one, given this text, thinks her sane.  After this reading, I am mostly convinced that the second-most productive way to read The Turn of the Screw is to work through the ghost story for clues - winks, jokes – that solve the puzzle of the frame story.


  1. This is pretty good. Usually when I read this one, I feel the same way, that it's James narrating the framing story. It never occurred to me that he was also the writer of the ghost story itself. Some strong (for James) pointers to that solution.

    The last time I read Screw, I thought that maybe the narrator of the frame was actually the hostess of the dinner. It reads okay that way, except that the narrator refers to men by their last names only, which I'm not sure a moneyed English woman in the late 19th century would do. Though even if the narrator of the frame is a woman, the host of the party, she and Douglas could still be in cahoots. The "ghost" story is a coded message--a confession--that Douglas is the real father of her two children, and when the housekeeper discovers the truth, she's dismissed as unreliable...

  2. Yessss. A Jamesian hostess, forging the manuscript. "'Oh, how delicious!' cried one of the women." I agree with her.

    The bit where the narrator says the story will tell who the governess is in love with, and Douglas says "No it won't!" then becomes even funnier.

  3. But that would be too infamous altogether......

  4. “Oh, handsome - very, very,” I insisted; “wonderfully handsome. But infamous.” (Ch. 7)