Posts Tagged ‘ghost stories’

The Turn of the Screw

September 30, 2013

After all the excitement of the Ham and High Literary Festival, EmilyBooks was whisked off by a kind and generous friend to Italy, to one of those rare and wonderful places with no internet, and not much of a phone signal either. Hence there was no post last week.

Truth be told, I’ve been rather restless with my reading, flitting between various novels and memoirs, not quite managing to get stuck in. Maybe it’s been a kind of hangover from the sheer wonder of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. At Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday, I found I was not alone in immediately wanting to re-read it. Many of us felt unwilling to leave it behind, perhaps because its teasing elliptical nature makes you want to go back and look for clues, as with a detective story. I suppose I ought to have just given in and re-read it straight away, rather than suffer this funny couple of weeks of dipping in and dipping out of things.

The Turn of the ScrewThe only thing I did manage to read cover to cover is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This was no doubt aided by its extreme brevity and gripping ghoulishness. I was also chairing the Southbank Centre’s Book Club about it last week, and turning up not having read it since university would have been cheeky to say the least.

Why has Henry James earned a reputation for being so impossibly difficult to read? I adored The Portrait of a Lady; What Maisie Knew is what first inspired me to try to write myself; I remember The Ambassadors being pretty ace; and The Turn of the Screw is unputdownable!

I expect you know the story. Some friends are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories when one of them boasts of a story that is so horrible that:

It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it … for dreadful – dreadfulness!

This ushers in the main story. A young woman goes to work as a governess for two orphans in a big country house. Before long, she starts to see two ghosts – a man and a woman, who she deduces used to be a valet and her predecessor at the house. She grows convinced that they want to take control of the angelic children, and so does everything she can to stop them. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

The knot at the heart of the book is whether or not we believe the governess. She is such a persuasive, powerful narrator that, at first, it is hard to doubt her. You can’t fail to be sucked in, terrified of the ghosts, unnerved that the children seem to be in cahoots with them.

Yet, read it more closely, and you see that Henry James encourages us to question the reliability of her narrative. She is by the lake with Flora, one of the children, when she sees the ghost of the old governess. Flora is apparently ignorant of the ghost, and yet this is how she reports the incident to Mrs Grose, the housekeeper:

‘Two hours ago, in the garden’ – I could scarce articulate – ‘Flora saw!’

Mrs Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. ‘She has told you?’ she panted.

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’ Unutterable still for me was the stupefaction of it.

Mrs Grose of course could only gape the wider. ‘Then how do you know?’

‘I was there – I saw with my eyes: saw she was perfectly aware.’

Henry James voices our doubts through Mrs Grose. How exactly does the governess know? How much do we trust what she saw with her eyes? We grow aware of quite how subjective her account is.

The ‘unreliable narrator’ is perhaps the ultimate Jamesian trope and one of those things that make teachers sweat with excitement. Once you start to question the governess, it is easy to jump on that school of thought that sees her as an unreliable narrator – mad, suffering from hysteria or from a displacement of her own anxiety or whatever else might explain these hallucinations or fabrications. Yet James doesn’t let you off so easily. He doesn’t make it irrefutably clear that the governess is making it up; there remains the distinct terrifying possibility that the ghosts are real.

Once you become aware of this knot, you see that every paragraph can be read both ways – as proof of the governess’s unreliability, or of the ghosts’ existence. It lends the book an intense claustrophobia, as its pages begin to close in on you and you feel desperate but unable to escape. I suppose it’s not unlike how the governess must feel – stuck in the house in the middle of nowhere with only ghosts and haunted children for company.

People get wretchedly caught up trying to argue this one way of the other. Truman Capote thought the ghosts were real; Edmund Wilson thought the governess was mad. It’s an argument that could go on forever. Henry James is the master of ambiguity. He teasingly tells us, when the friends are gathered round the fire:

The story won’t tell.

(His italics.) No, indeed it won’t.

In his Preface to the New York Edition of his work, James wrote the following about The Turn of the Screw. It comes at the end of a paragraph about different types of fairy tale:

The charm of all these things for the distracted modern mind is in the clear field of experience, as I call it, over which we are thus led to roam; an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it.

I love this idea of a fairy tale as ‘an annexed but independent world in which nothing is right save as we rightly imagine it’. This is what makes The Turn of the Screw at once intoxicating and terrifying. The governess imagines the ghosts and so they are ‘right’ and real to her. It is up to us whether we decide to go along with her and imagine the ghosts too, or whether we decide not to. What is right or not depends entirely on our imagination. Not just a fairy tale, but all fiction is a place where imagination roams free, and in The Turn of the Screw we see the horrifying edge to this – we are tantalisingly close to what might happen if we let our imagination roam a little too freely.

Henry James in 1897

The Small Hand

December 13, 2011

Last week I read The Small Hand by Susan Hill. It was a choice based on the feeling that a ghost story was the right sort of thing to read in winter. It would be weird to feel too spine-tinglingly chilly in the heat of summer, whereas now it would be forgiven for prompting another cup of tea or making one draw a little closer to the fire. Or radiator.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a proper ghost story, other than The Turn of the Screw and a few various gothic moments that have incidentally come my way via bits and pieces of literature. So I read The Small Hand with a certain naïve scepticism. In other words I wasn’t expecting to find it particularly scary.

And I’m not sure that it was scary in a gory, terrifying, panic-inducing way. But it only took ten pages or so to get me completely gripped, longing to know what would happen next, where the eerie ghostly grip of the hand would take me. And perhaps that kind of tension and thrill counts as being scary in its own way.

The story is narrated by Adam Snow, an antiquarian bookseller, who gets lost on a winding country road and ends up by a derelict house. He is strangely drawn to the house and then,

as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it.

Of course, there is no child. Surprisingly, Adam Snow doesn’t feel spooked in a horrid way by this sensation, in fact he rather likes it, and wishes he could feel it again. The reader gets the impression that it’s a friendly kind of ghost, one who might help him.

But things take a turn for the worse when the tugging at his hand recurs, swiftly becoming violent and trying to pull him to his death. Adam suffers alarming panic attacks and feels impelled to throw himself into any nearby body of water. Even a quiet pool in a very holy French monastery. Adam discovers that there was a boy who drowned in the pond at the derelict house, and suspects that this small hand belongs to his ghost. Then there are a couple of brilliant twists in the plot and it ends with a sudden raw feeling of slack-jawed surprise  – and of admiration for Susan Hill’s storytelling skill.

It’s tricky to discuss it without giving things away. While I have tried not to really spell it out, perhaps it’s only fair to warn you that if you want to avoid any risk of potential spoilers, you better look away now.

I thought there were two very interesting things about this book, which made it far greater than just any old ghost story.

Firstly, I recently saw Susan Hill give a talk, in which she was predominantly talking about her Simon Serrailler crime series. She said she found it fascinating when the nation was gripped with a particular news story. It doesn’t happen all that often, but every now and then something truly terrible happens, like the Soham murders, for instance, and something about it really grips everyone. She said that as a writer, she was often looking for new ways to engage with that.

And so, reading this book where it becomes clear that a two-year-old child has been drowned by an older child, one can’t help but think of the James Bulger case. This is a similarity pointed out by James Dyson in his review in the Guardian too. It doesn’t dominate the whole book, but somehow Hill’s ghost story casts a new slant of light on this appalling case. She gives us another instance of cruelty from one child to another, and looks at how that impacts upon the surviving child’s life, its repercussions, first muted and then fatally pronounced.

And, linked to this, is something Susan Hill hints at at the very beginning of the book, when Adam Snow first comes across the house:

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to see more. I wanted for some reason I did not understand to come here in the full light of day, to see everything, uncover what was concealed, reveal what had been hidden. Find out why.

It is immediately after this confession of an inexplicable desire to discover something that Adam Snow first feels the small hand. What if one decides that the ghostly small hand isn’t actually real, if the ghost isn’t really there, but is a manifestation of something psychologically repressed by the narrator?

Later in the book, Adam Snow returns to the house, determined to discover what is prompting this ‘ghost’, driven to get to the bottom of the mysterious violent urge that plagues him. There then follows an extraordinary few pages, where a strange old lady draws him into the derelict house, where she shows him pictures, and then leads him to a part of the house’s garden which isn’t overgrown and neglected like the rest of it, but is well-kept, freshly-mown, thriving. After this strange dream-like experience, he describes how he came to, ‘dazed’ and wonders if he had fainted. The reader can’t help but be puzzled by this episode. What’s happened? Where was he? Who is the mad old woman? How can he have found a hidden garden? Did he travel back in time?

Perhaps it is a strangely-realised journey into the subconscious, a delving into parts of his memory that had lain still, forgotten, a sudden flash of a photograph, integral to unlocking the mystery.

But I don’t think this psychological interpretation of a ghost story makes its ghosts any less real. The ghosts are there for Adam Snow; they are his ghosts. If anything it’s an argument that ghosts do exist. For we all have things that we have tried to forget, many have had traumatic moments of childhood that they have pushed deep down inside themselves. So it stands to reason that at some point we might feel an eerie familiarity with a place, or smell, a strange urge to go somewhere, an uncanny feeling of deja vu, something that could almost be described as supernatural. We all have our ghosts. Perhaps the lesson here is to face them, for there is no point in running away – they will always catch up with us and then the truth will out.