BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Turn of the Screw

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, one of the great ghost stories…or is it?

The Turn of the Screw was one of the early shoe-ins for this list; a famous, turn-of-the-century ghost story with a fearsome (or should that be fearful?) reputation and apparently great influence over the genre. But unlike Jekyll and Hyde, or Dracula, I’ve never seen any of its many adaptations, not had any real awareness of the plot, so for the first time I’m going into one of these stories stone cold. Which in many ways is the best way to approach a story on which so much is hung on the unknown, and unexplained.

The story is short and to the point – a young woman is appointed Governess to a two young children by their uncle, who seems to want nothing to do with them, and sent to live with them in a large country house along with the staff. The previous Governess died of dark and unspoken-of reasons, probably to do with another, unsavory member of the household, also now deceased. The Governess starts to see their ghosts, and becomes obsessed that they are coming for the children, and tragedy, eventually, ensues.

The clever thing with The Turn of the Screw is simply this – there is no actual evidence it’s all not all in the Governess’ mind. It is a terrifically atmospheric story, tight, claustrophobic and gripping. Told from the first person (with a fireside ghost story framing device) that lack of true objectivity, and lack of corroboration merely adds to the tension whilst leaving the doubt as to whether there are indeed malevolent ghosts at work, or simply emergent obsessive madness. It’s also a great example of “spooky children” and I can easily think of many books and films that must have been heavily influenced by it.

Reading around, I have found there has been a great deal of effort put to “solving” this central mystery of the story but it all seems a great waste of effort. I’m no great literary analyst but it seems to be that the whole point is that you cannot resolve the question of “are the ghosts” real and you’re not supposed to. The ambiguity is at the heart of what makes the story work. So I’m not afraid to label The Turn of the Screw an out and out classic. I ripped through it, thought about it afterwards, and even now it lingers at the back of my brain.

Next time: More spooky goings on with the works of the great M R James.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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