The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
US, 1898

Every year as summer rolls into autumn, I’m tempted to read something appropriately seasonal—something spooky or mysterious, a story shrouded in mist of the moors or night’s chill darkness. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps my ur-example, but The Turn of the Screw very neatly fits the bill as well. It is—by all outer appearances, at least—a ghost story: an inexperienced governess tasked with overseeing the care of an orphaned brother and sister who are all but neglected by their uncaring uncle soon sees evil in every corner, in the form of ghostly apparitions, and makes it her mission to save her young charges. But there are more questions raised than answered, and readers and critics alike can’t seem to agree on if this is actually a ghost story or if is really the story of a mentally unstable governess: Jane Eyre with Bertha in the role of governess.

In some ways, I find this a curious question—the story works, no matter how it is read. There are hints that perhaps the governess is unhinged, and the ghosts are “all in her head,” but at the same time it is not implausible, based purely on the text at hand, to assume it is indeed a ghost story. Much is left vague in the text, with things left unsaid or half-said, and characters seeming to talk to each other, but by way of omissions perhaps actually talking past each other. In the end, either there are ghosts, of a most evil variety, or the governess has entirely lost her mind and brings the evil with her. Either the children are innocents, preyed upon by evil influences, or they are cunning, wily participants in their own destruction. Perhaps it is all the above. The interpretation may say as much about the reader and the reader’s expectations as about the novella itself.

James structures his story with a framing introduction, set decades after the main events, and which functions to introduce the governess’s written manuscript which follows.  The man who has this narrative in his possession, Douglas, raises his audience’s expectations greatly, doling out tiny pieces of information, claiming to never have shared it before, that nothing touches it—for “dreadfulness!” It is a bold claim to make, and a risky one to raise expectations so high. But revisiting the frame after finishing the novella, I find it met, regardless of the interpretation of the story, especially in looking at the children: They are corrupted or they are haunted or they are exposed to madness in one who should protect them—maybe all of the above. They may or may not be innocent, but they are certainly vulnerable. The idea of their corruption, in whatever manner, is indeed, “dreadful.” 

For all the uncertainty surrounding the plot and the reliability of the narrator (and in spite of James’s at time obtuse prose), I found it a suspenseful page-turner, one that doesn’t shy away from the concept of evil. Even if there are no literal ghosts, what remains behind is the presence of evil—the ghost, as it were, of past misdeeds. Even if neither child has ever seen a ghost, they have either previously, currently (to the narrative), or in both instances, been exposed to a darkness from outside themselves. This is the horror of the story.

Reread: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition CoverThe Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1902, Scotland

But it was not the sight of her body, nor yet was it that of the body of Hugo Baskerville lying near her, which raised the hair upon the heads of these three daredevil roysterers, but it was that, standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. (Ch. 2)

When I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles last fall, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Castle of Otranto, the grandfather of the Gothic novel. This year, at a further remove from my reading of Otranto, it is less that specific novel that I am reminded of and more of the general idea of “ghost story.” Certainly, at least, the legend of the Baskerville family–that of a diabolical hound that killed the blackguard Hugo Baskerville–would all on its own be a perfect campfire story.

The deliciously spine-tingling atmosphere of the Baskerville legend continues throughout the short mystery, with a gloomy, autumnal setting in the moors; eerie, unexplained sounds filling the air; and an escaped convict just to complicate things. It is only a little too bad that this is a Holmes mystery and so therefore the end seems a bit of a sharp contrast–all must be explained by light of day in Holmes’s stark logic. And really, for being a mystery, it is the atmosphere that keeps me returning. Although I don’t foresee myself rereading again next year, it does seem that visits with some of the movie adaptations may perhaps be in order.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is my third read for this year’s R.I.P. Although several people expressed interest in reading it with me a while back, the only post I’ve seen so far is Christine’s at The Moonlight Reader – let me know if I missed any!

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Completed: Death Masks (#5 of Dresden Files)

Cover: Death Masks by Jim Butcher
Death Masks
Jim Butcher
2003, U.S.

I had hoped to have The Hound of the Baskervilles finished by now for the readalong (if you’re participating, share the link to your thoughts on the RAL post by the end of the week–I’ll be done by then, promise!), but lacking that, some quick notes on my latest completed read.

Death Masks is the 5th of the Dresden Files, a series that is part mystery, part urban fantasy–and thus perfect for R.I.P. I’ve been (very slowly) making my way through the series in order, and by this point I think it’s safe to say that they pretty much follow the same formula: Harry Dresden, Wizard and P.I., finds himself entangled in a mess usually partly of his own making and partly as a result of an investigation he has been hired to solve (and/or to consult on for the Chicago PD). The action is nonstop, there’s pretty much a guarantee that a)Harry won’t get enough sleep b)he will completely miss an obvious clue because of either his tiredness or (more likely) a pretty lady c) he will face down a creature more powerful than himself but d) you know he will win in the end because 1) the good guys always do, especially when they’re the narrators and 2) he’s not so good that he’s above cheating. So pretty standard stuff, and really not too much to think about past the first book or two (beyond maybe looking up the traditional stories about some of the creatures/legends Harry encounters). However, probably because of all the blogging/tweeting I’ve seen about diverse books and diverse characters this year, it finally dawned on me–the Dresden Files novels have a really diverse set of characters. I don’t spend much time with fantasy-type novels (Tolkien and children’s lit aside), but my understanding this a diverse cast of characters is not exactly common in the genre.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess

Completed: Raven Black (Shetland Island Series)

Cover: Raven Black by Ann CleevesRaven Black
Ann Cleeves
2006, UK

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whiskey and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but he still waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there has been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheet of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.  (Opening)

I believe I first heard of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland mysteries by way of knitting. While that may sound a bit odd, there is a distinct style of lace knitting that originates in the Shetland Islands (and Fair Isle, known for its knitted color-work is between Shetland and the Scottish mainland). One Shetland topic–lace–led to another–mysteries–but it was finally an NPR interview with author Ann Cleeves this summer that prompted me to pick up the first in her Shetland series.

I guess it’s been a while since I’ve read any contemporary mysteries (mysteries, not thrillers). A few years at least. I say (write) this because I was about halfway through Raven Black when my oh-so-intellectual thought process became “Oh! Duh! Mysteries have conventions!” Right. In this instance, the convention of a rather small cast of characters that form the entire list of suspects. Of course, for a novel set in a small town in  remote Shetland, a small cast of characters is perhaps also realistic.

Actually, it was a certain sense of realism that I think kept me in part from remembering the mystery conventions. This is a mystery that seems plausible–the victim, the community, their motivations. Even the activities of the police seem grounded in reality–the early mornings, late nights, little to go on, waiting, waiting, questioning, listening. No grand revelations. (That said, the end did feel a bit rushed, but I so often feel that way, that I wonder if it’s me speeding up.) It is the story of a murdered girl, Catherine Ross, 16, an outsider, yet at first there seems no reason anyone should wish her dead. Which is why suspicion immediately–and naturally–falls on the lonely old man who was questioned, but never charged in the disappearance of a little girl some years previous.

The story is told from the points of view of four characters: Magnus Tait, the man suspected; Jimmy Perez, the local detective; Fran Hunter, who discovered the body; and Sally Henry, the victim’s neighbor and friend. While I didn’t notice that their voices (with the exception of Magnus) were distinct, their perspectives–what they know, what they are thinking, who they meet and talk to, their motivations–are decidedly so. It was a method of storytelling I really liked (at least here)–the different perspectives, the way it moved the narrative forward. I don’t think I would necessarily call it a “fast-paced” novel, yet I found it difficult to put down.

Of course, I think I must also be a terrible mystery reader. I never work out “who done it.” Sigh.

I’ve never been to Shetland (or Scotland, or any of the U.K.), so I don’t really know how accurate Cleeve’s portrait of the islands is, but it felt real: The descriptions of the landscape, of the town, the sprinkling in of local words (such as “peerie”), the insights on a small town. Cleeves is not from Shetland, but has been there many times, and in her NPR interview, she takes the reporter to meet some Shetland friends who review her novels for accuracy before they are published. There is a remote feel that I would expect from settlements so far from the bustling cities and easy access to–everything. (It is amazing to me to know, actually, that during the Victorian era, English women would purchase fine–ultra-fine, actually–knit lace shawls from Shetland and send them back to be washed and blocked as needed–in an era when the islands were even more remote!) It is a setting I will be happy to return to with her later books.

Raven Black is my first R.I.P. read this autumn.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles Readalong Begins!

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition Cover

It’s finally here, October 1, and The Hound of the Baskervilles readalong can begin! (Confession: my brain’s been convinced it’s October for a couple weeks. This will be a deliciously long month.) Whether you’ve never read Baskervilles before or are returning to a much-loved tale, I hope it is a pleasurable visit. I aim for low-stress reading experiences, so there’s no set schedule or questions to answer, just an opportunity for all who wish to read along together and discuss at the end of the month. (Though, if you’re really ambitious, I think there might be enough textual evidence to read most of the story on the days of the month it takes place.) During the final week of October, return here to share links to your posts, and join in the discussion. I will let this post serve as the links post for the month, and will link it in my sidebar. And it’s not too late–even if you didn’t express interest in my earlier post, feel free to join in at any time this month. This should be fun!

Happy reading!