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Turn of the Screw is a wonderful book -- a kind of complicated ghost story that showcases the complexities of the interactions between adults and children. This particular reading is wonderful, and the sound quality is excellent.
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Henry James' classic gothic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw (1898), opens with Douglas reading to a group of friends a "real" story of "uncanny ugliness and horror and pain." It's the manuscript handwritten by the woman who was his and his sister's governess 40 years ago. She's been dead for twenty years, and she never shared her manuscript and story with anyone but Douglas, who loved her.
The story is her account of what happened when at age twenty she got her first position as governess, taking charge of the ten-year-old nephew and eight-year-old niece of a handsome, gallant, and wealthy man. Despite the master disclosing that the previous governess died, that he would never visit Bly, the Essex country mansion where the kids would be living, “That she should never trouble him--but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything,” and that she was to take care of everything, she agreed to take the job because of its high salary and because she'd been smitten with him and wanted to please him.
Her first impressions of Bly and her situation are favorable. The girl, Flora, impresses her as charming, beautiful, and angelic, like “one of Raphael’s holy infants.” And even though a letter immediately comes from the boy's boarding school saying without explanation that he has been permanently expelled, when the governess meets the “incredibly beautiful” Miles, possessed as he is of “something divine” and a “positive fragrance of purity,” she can't believe he could have done anything bad, and figures that he must have been too innocent for the world of boarding schools. Therefore she decides to keep Miles at home for a while to tutor him as well as Flora.
All goes well until one day on the Bly grounds she sees a stranger who leaves after uncannily staring her down. When she minutely describes the man to the good natured, illiterate housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the woman says that it must be Peter Quint, the master's low-born former valet, who'd been put in charge of everything (including the children's education) a while ago, and who had subsequently died! So it must be a supernatural visitation. Not long after, the governess sees what she concludes must be the apparition of the former governess, Miss Jessel, who, according to the housekeeper, was a lady who stooped to form a liaison with Quint, got pregnant, had to leave her position, and somehow died somewhere else.
Rather than, "Am I imagining things?" the question for the governess becomes, "Do the children also see the apparitions?" And "If so, why haven’t they told anyone about it?" And "Why have they never mentioned Peter Quint and Miss Jessel?" In order to learn the truth, she begins watching the kids and waiting to see if they betray the slightest signs of an awareness of the visitants. The situation turns increasingly creepy and disturbing, because the governess is convinced that the apparitions harbor intentions of "unmistakable horror and evil" towards the children (as, apparently, they did before they died), but also because we may suspect the governess of being delusional. The only seemingly objective and clear-cut example of a person seeing the apparitions is the governess. Although her vivid descriptions of both visitants so as to evoke their identities from commonsensical Mrs. Grose, who was working in the house when Quint and Miss Jessel were also working there, would seem to confirm her veracity and sanity, it might be that, having heard what happened at the house before she began working there, her potent and too restrained imagination (as the youngest daughter of a poor country parson and a reader of Gothic and emotional fiction) has been playing tricks on her, and that she and Mrs. Grose might have unconsciously collaborated as it were in constructing the supernatural explanation. As the governess writes, "I had made her a receptacle of lurid things. . . . She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch's broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan." On the other hand, it could really all be true!
At times the governess sounds like one of Poe's "sane" narrators: "They're talking of THEM--they're talking horrors! I go on, I know, as if I were crazy; and it's a wonder I'm not. What I've seen would have made YOU so; but it has only made me more lucid, made me get hold of still other things." But at other times she really does sound lucid: "It was not, I am as sure today as I was sure then, my mere infernal imagination: it was absolutely traceable that they [Miles and Flora] were aware of my predicament [seeing the apparitions] and that this strange relation made, in a manner, for a long time, the air in which we moved." Whatever the case, she too fervently yearns to protect the kids and to be loved by them and to make them hers! Perhaps the scariest thrust of the story is that the more we want to protect someone, the more likely we may be to fail.
The reader, Stephanie Beachum, does an excellent job voicing the governess and, through her point of view and persona, the other characters in the story. I had thought to buy the audiobook read by Emma Thompson, liking her acting, but her voice in the sample sounded too keen, so I chose Beachum's version, and highly recommend it.
Readers who like impeccably written, meticulously psychological, and exquisitely ambiguous ghost stories that gradually build intensity without resorting to sensational action scenes featuring fountains of blood, gruesome monsters, and the like, should enjoy The Turn of the Screw.
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