The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels

by Henry James

Last time through I had read “Portrait of a Lady” for my “J” book, and I thought I’d give this famous story by James a shot now, not realizing up front that it’s a novella and the book contains six novelas to pad out the length.

Guy can write.

A popular opinion of the time was that the novella was the perfect length for a work of fiction. Short enough to read in one setting (though I mostly didn’t) but long enough to ground you in the characters and world, and so pack a dramatic punch.

I wouldn’t argue, given my love of Conrad and some longer SF stories, but here I wasn’t entirely sold. The title story, The Turn of the Screw is quite good and, I’d say, long enough. But I felt like “An International Incident” was an excerpt, almost, from a Portrait of a Lady style novel. Just as you’re getting to really know the character, the story ends.

Now, “leave ’em wanting more” is not a bad motto. But I wasn’t sure, at the end of that one, whether the writer had punted on the nature of the main character’s, em, character, or I had just missed the motivation behind the sudden change in direction. James is kind of fascinating because he’s a person in the story—the narrator—who relates the tale from a third person perspective that might be called “third person apologetic”. It’s not omniscience, to be sure, but it’s not exactly limited, either. More of a “it would be inappropriate to elaborate further”.

Interesting stuff. As far as horror stories go, “The Aspern Papers” struck me as far more horrific than “Screw”, even though it has no actual supernatural elements in it. You could easily get the sense that H.P. Lovecraft was inspired by it: It could’ve easily turned fantastic at several points. Even the title sounds like later horror story titles.

“The Beast in the Jungle” is also a kind of existential horror. The implication is that some sort of supernatural horror is afoot, but the truth is far worse.

Enjoyed it all. “Turn of the Screw” perhaps not as much as the others, ironically.

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