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Happy endings, horror-style

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Shirley_Jackson.jpg
The Haunting of Hill House casts a pleasant pall, inducing in the reader a physical state of mild anxiety that seasons, as much as it quickens, the page-turning.  And the book contains one truly dreadful scene that left me revolted: in the middle of the night, Nell and Theodora sit up in their beds, holding hands in the dark and cold -- holding so tightly they can feel the bones in each others' hands -- listening to ghostly babbling from the next room.  Then the sound of a child being hurt and crying interrupts the babbling, and Nell summons the courage to shout, "Stop it!"  At which point, the dark dissipates, the light is on, and Theodora wakes, asking Nell why she is shouting.  Nell (and I!) are overcome by the question:  "whose hand was I holding?"  (p. 120.)

But for all the marvelous frightfulness of The Haunting of Hill House, the scary aspect of the story is not the supernatural manifestations of evil.  To the contrary, the terror arises from the profound -- ordinary, realistic -- isolation that Nell suffers.  Although Nell tells herself that she is a "human, . . . a walking reasoning humorous human being," (p. 120), humans are social animals, and Nell consistently endures deprivation of normal social contact.  Instead of being mothered, Nell must nurse her mother through illness.  Friendless and jobless, Nell lives on the despised periphery of her sister's family.  Nell is so without succor that when she needs support, she thinks back to an encounter with a stranger, an old lady who promised in passing to pray for Nell.

Nell's exile from the terrain of familial, communal and social human interaction -- from the web of human connections against which our identities emerge -- from the context humans need to be human -- evokes another heroine of another iconic ghost story: the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  The governess also appears without recourse to necessary human support: her boss has instructed her never to contact him, and she seems to lack intimates (parents, siblings, friends) who can provide her with guidance.  That neither woman has a paramour or husband goes without saying; indeed, the implicit assumption is that both women are virgins -- unloved, unwanted, adult innocents.

The significance of these protagonists' ambiguous social standing is not, as Edmund Wilson would have it, that socially neglected women are likely to be sexual hysterics prone to hallucinations, but that the liminal space both women inhabit is the horror in these stories.  Nell and the governess belong nowhere -- no lover, people or home claims them (with the caveat that evil Hill House does exert claim over Nell, which explains part of her attraction to it) -- but they have done nothing to warrant such exile: they lack even the definition of the banished.  The mechanics of their bodies function, and their physical existence confirms "life," but human life has only theoretical existence outside the context of human society.  As social animals denied the "social," Nell and the governess live in earthly purgatory; like the category-transgressing "dead restored" (p. 64) -- Quint and Miss Jessel -- in The Turn of the Screw, Nell and the governess are, in a sense, themselves ghosts.         

In both stories, our horror derives from the plausibility of such a fate.  The supernatural manifestations and the deaths they precipitate in both books are a relief -- a venting of the tension arising from the unavoidable risk we all bear of occupying in our life times a purgatory, of finding ourselves in the borderlands between the living and the dead.  By this measure, death, with its unambiguous finality, is a kind of happy ending.

That thought brought me lingering sadness as I closed The Haunting of Hill House: what a miserable person Nell was, and what a pathetic life she led.  The total absence of redemption -- neither cruel nor sentimental, but simply fact -- is the scariest aspect of this book, and the way Jackson guides the reader to this culminating truth and supports our absorption of it is a triumph.

Image of Shirley Jackson from www.shirleyjackson.org.

Breaking the dove's wings

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Wings_of_the_Dove.jpgTaking a delightful dig at a certain type of imaginatively-constrained reader or critic, Henry James included the following passage at the opening of The Turn of the Screw:

"Who was it she was in love with?"
"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
. . .
"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
"More's the pity, then.  That's the only way I ever understand."
(pp. 3-4.)

Apparently, that's the only way Iain Softley thought his audience would understand his 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove.   And more's the pity.

The movie, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks.  Where Henry James drips the poisonous motivations into the plot, Softley floods the story with them.  Where James is indirect, Softley charges like a blundering drunk.  Where James refers to sex, Softley stages street corner couplings and full-frontal nudity.  To say that much is lost in the story's translation from novel to screen is an understatement.

I will not here deny that I had issues with the pacing of the novel, The Wings of the Dove.  The gambit to seduce Milly in order to inherit when she dies was apparent well before the characters speak unflinchingly of it.  But in the strategic creep of the deception, the reader - as much as the characters - acclimates to it, gets drawn in and is ultimately seduced by the plan.  In the film, however, rapidity causes shock and revulsion at the deception; the viewer recoils.  (Sample comments from my companion in watching the film, my mother: "That woman is evil"; "What a devious bitch.") 

Nor will I deny that a certain frustration attends to James' "blanks."  For example, Kate Croy's father's badness remains unspecified in the novel.  The reason everyone finds him despicable is simply not named, nor even hungered after: 

What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?
"I don't know - and I don't want to . . . ." Kate explained.
(p. 75.)

I have written before of how James leaves these lacunae to be filled by the readers' imagination, but the film cannot tolerate such ambiguity, even at the expense of the viewer's engagement.  In the film, Kate Croy's father is an addict: mystery concluded.

As for the sex, I was frankly bowled over by the explicitness of James' reference to an act of lovemaking ("Come to me").  Nonetheless, James keeps the "who did what to whom" out of sight, so as to heighten its sensual power.  After Merton persuades Kate to make love with him before she departs with her aunt for London, Kate's presence is constant in his rooms in Venice, a goad and a talisman, proof of her love and a guarantee (to himself) of the justification of his actions.  In the film, on the other hand, the kissing, groping, entangling and disrobing is so cavalier that it can't signify anything.  It's mere prurience.

To proceed on the supposition that the film's approach to storytelling is the only way an audience will "understand" is a profound error and a terrible disservice.  Far from fostering understanding, this "literal, vulgar way" of telling a story undercuts comprehension.  Having slashed mercilessly at the progressive development of the novel's plot, the film of The Wings of the Dove descends into inscrutability.  (Why Kate takes off her clothes in the film's penultimate scene is an unanswerable question of a magnitude second only to why Merton follows suit.)   

More importantly, from the film, no one could possibly see why the novel, The Wings of the Dove, is great.  More's the pity indeed.     

(Image of Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliott playing Kate Croy and Milly Theale in the 1997 film production of The Wings of the Dove from Film Reference)

Hasn't the governess suffered enough?

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Governess_Turn_of_the_Screw.jpgIn 1934, Edmund Wilson, in an essay called "The Ambiguity of Henry James," argued that governess was crazy, and that the ghosts were hallucinations resulting from her sexually-repressed psyche.  Since then, volumes of critical argument debating the point have amassed.  (So much so, in fact, that Edward J. Parkinson, Ph.D., compiled an overview of the critcism for his dissertation.)

I am not a scholar of this, or any other, issue, and I haven't done anything more than skim the arguments in the course of Internet surfing.  But nothing I've glimpsed has made me want to read more deeply because the arguments seem so implausible.

The Turn of the Screw is a multiple frame story: the unnamed and unidentified narrator tells us what Douglas said, and Douglas in turn reads from a manuscript written by the governess.  The narrator gives no indication of being unreliable, and Douglas exists on the page as serious and discreet. 

The questions about narrative credibility only begin when the governess' narrative voice takes over the story.  The governess, after all, is seeing ghosts - ghosts whose presence are not confirmed by another witness; additionally, the governess liberally leaps to wild conclusions (The ghost was looking for little Miles!  The children see the ghosts!  The ghosts want to possess the children!) that are supported by no tangible evidence.

Nonetheless, Douglas attests to the governess' credibility.  He tells us, at the beginning of the book, that the governess had been his sister's governess, that he'd found her

the most agreeable woman [he'd] ever known in her position. . . . [S]he struck me as awfully clever and nice.  Oh yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too. 

(p. 3.)  He also reveals in his preamble to the governess' manuscript that the governess never saw her employer again after her initial interviews for the job.  (p. 7.)

By the end of the book, (spoiler alert!) with little Miles' heart abruptly stopped, the reader can easily forget Douglas' testimony from the beginning of the story.  According to Douglas, after this governess had a charge die on her watch, she nonetheless was able to continue working in her profession.  She was not shunned by prospective employers, which suggests strongly that her employer, Miles' uncle, gave her a good recommendation. 

More astonishingly, her employer didn't see the governess after the death of his nephew.  This fact is all the more shocking because, before Miles' death, the governess dispatched Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, with Flora, Mile's sister, to take refuge at the uncle's flat in London.  With a niece crowding his bachelor lodgings because, in the throes of illness, she appeared possessed by the ghost of her former governess, and with a nephew dead in the arms of the current governess back in the country house in Essex, the uncle still doesn't meet with the governess - not to investigate, not to commiserate, not to mourn, not to condemn.

Granted, the employer admittedly didn't like the fuss and bother of caretaking children, but once Flora is at his London abode, and Miles needs to be buried, he must engage - just as he had to divert himself from his bachelor's schedule to hire another governess after the first governess, Miss Jessel, died.  Why he would engage without seeing the current governess is odd. 

I picture the employer sending money and a glowing recommendation through his solicitor, and then prodding her on her way.  Or possibly the solicitor made quiet inquiries to place her elsewhere.  But in all events, Miles' death seems to have prompted a distasteful cover-up - and one that bespeaks both a sense of guilt on the part of the uncle and a sense of vindication for the governess.  In his smoothing over of the event, the uncle tacitly acknowledges that he shouldn't have left the governess alone and without recourse to his advice.  Such a concession seems exceedingly unlikely in the event of wrongdoing (even insanity-induced wrongdoing) by the governess.

No other option accords with Douglas' testimony.  If the governess had been subject to state action because of Miles' death - whether criminal investigation, imprisonment, commitment to an insane asylum, or civil suit - she would not have been able to continue her work as a governess with Douglas' sister.  Nor is it likely that her personality would have been so winning by the time she met Douglas.  Moreover, the uncle almost certainly would have seen the governess in the course of such state action, whether to provide testimony or otherwise.

To insist on the insanity of the governess in the face of Douglas' testimony is to question Douglas.  Some critics do.  For example, various theories suggest that Douglas is a "grown-up" Miles.  But I think that, by the time we're positing convoluted scenarios in which dead children resurface elsewhere in the story as grown adults with different names, we're out of the realm of interpreting Henry James and into the fresh, wide-open space of independent creation.   

In his Preface to The Turn of the Screw, James is forthright about leaving the ghosts vague:

What . . . had I given the sense of?  Of [the ghosts] being . . . capable . . . of everything - that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims . . . might be conceived as subject to.  What would be then . . . this utmost conceivability? . . . There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to . . . the spectator's, the critic's, the reader's experience.  Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough . . . and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy . . . and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.  Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. 

(p. 8.) 

This Preface, combined with the testimony James gave Douglas to submit on the governess' behalf, elucidates James' intent.  He wrote a ghost story.  Whatever the governess' psychological profile, she is in the presence of ghosts.  James just thought the ghosts would be more effective if he left them highly undefined and let the readers' imaginations fill in the details.  Rather than offer "weak specifications," James wants the readers' imaginations to fire up. 

I hope I'm not out of line when I say, with all due respect to the Master, that I think he let himself off the hook of detailing the "weak specifications" a little too soon.  Without a doubt he fired up readers' imaginations.  But, as I detailed in a prior post, precisely because the horror of the story isn't palpable, because his "general vision of evil" wasn't "intense enough" to weather the changing consciousnesses of readers in ever-more-modern societies, the absence of "weak specficiations" has enabled readers' imagations to wander wildly from the topic of the evil in which the ghosts were engaged.  Ghosts?  Modern readers dismiss ghosts and look for alternative explanations, Freudian sub-texts, and twisted conspiracies.

Poor governess: the ordeal to which the author subjected her is nothing compared to her eternal afterlife on the prongs of the critics' pitchforks.

(Image of Michelle Dockery playing the governess in a BBC television version of The Turn of the Screw from The Mirror)

The ghosts of the love that dare not speak its name

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Turn_of_the_Screw_opera.jpgAnd here I must come round to the confession that I have seriously exaggerated, or possibly distorted or overstated the case, such that an entire blog post is necessary for clarification.

In a prior post, I claimed that The Turn of the Screw didn't frighten me.  While it's true that the story didn't scare me the way, say, The Shining did (does), it is not true that I didn't detect an oppressive, fearful tension in The Turn of the Screw.  I did.

It just wasn't the ghosts.  It was the silence.

Prohibitions on speaking, both implicit and explicit, abound in The Turn of the Screw.  The story begins with a gag-order when the governess' employer forbids her to write to him for any reason: she must "only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone."  (p. 7.)

Then Miles, the elder of the governess' charges, is expelled from school under circumstances unexplained by the headmaster.  In a bewildered state emerging from her inability to reconcile Miles' innocent appearance with this condemnation, the governess opts to remain silent on the topic - in response to the headmaster, to her employer, and with Miles himself - with the result that the subject of Miles' expulsion becomes a matter of "deep obscurity."  (p. 24.) 

Into these silences waft the ghosts.  The governess sees the ghosts of her charges' former companions, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and she believe that Miles and his sister, Flora, also see the ghosts.  But Miles and Flora never mention either their now-deceased companions or the ghosts, and the governess dares not be the first to speak:

I was confronted . . . with all the risk attached . . . to sounding my own horrid note. . . . [Miles] could do as he liked . . . so long as I should continue to defer to the old tradition of the criminality of those caretakers of the young who minister to superstitions and fears. . . . [W]ho would ever absolve me . . . if . . . I were the first to introduce into our intercourse an element so dire?

(p. 61.) 

Time and again, the governess has opportunities to confront Miles and Flora about the ghosts, and repeatedly the governess declines them.  She expresses her fear that, when confronted, the children will lie and deny seeing the ghosts (p. 42).  She alludes to the possibility that her sanity is vulnerable to question (p. 64).  And, of course, she is aware that she could be accused of polluting the children with foolish superstitions.

From this silence upon silence upon silence springs the horror of The Turn of the Screw: not the return of the dead, or the evil of the people who the ghosts had once been, but of the corruption to morality, conduct, sanity and even reality itself that arises from the unspeakable.  If we cannot speak of our lives, we create the conditions for horror.

I imagine Henry James knew intimately the risks of the unspeakable.  James may have been gay - celibate or otherwise, but definitely not "out" to his family (his letters to gay and bisexual men lend themselves to that interpretation).  Whatever the truth, James chose silence on the topic of the connection - if any - between his sexuality and his bachelerhood. 

Meanwhile, around him, those who spoke suffered.  James' contemporary, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned; James' close friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have gone too far in expressing her love for him, committed suicide.  In his languid novel of Henry James' life, The Master, Colm Tóibín imagines Henry James remaining largely silent, and indignant, as well-intentioned people confront him about both these events. 

Whatever liability or incapacity prevented this most verbose of men from a verbal defense must have been most horrible.  However his silence warped his life was likely a defect he marked well . . . and possibly transmuted into The Turn of the Screw: a parable illustrating how the warping action of repressive silence costs one love, as well as life; a parable in which the ghosts that torment the governess are lovers who broke society's rules.

After gazing on such "dreadful - dreadfulness" (p. 2), the rest is silence. 

(Image of Crispin Lord as Miles and Anna Devin as the governess in Benjamin Britten's opera adaptation of The Turn of the Screw from The Independent)

A wobbly hand on the screwdriver

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The_Innocents.jpgAt the opening of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Douglas describes the story he's about to tell as "quite too horrible." 

"It's beyond everything," he insists.  "Nothing at all that I know touches it . . . . [f]or general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."
(p. 2.)  Though instinctually I credit Douglas, and although (spoiler alert!) the death of little Miles at the story's conclusion lends credence to Douglas' characterization, I didn't see "the horror" myself.

Let's put to one side the fact that, after mustard gas in the trenches of WWI, and gas chambers in the Holocaust, and killing fields in Cambodia, and the torture chambers into which Chile's disappeared vanished, and - well, you get the idea - a pair of ghosts in a country house (even a pair of ghosts in a country house who kill a little boy) are far, far from the known human extreme of "general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain." 

Of course, Henry James was writing before the generally uncannily ugly, horrible and painful twentieth century.  Nonetheless, he set himself a high standard, even for his own time.  I'm not convinced that he met it.

Throughout The Turn of the Screw, the governess reacts with revulsion and terror to the prospect that the children, Miles and Flora, can see the ghosts.  ("They KNOW - it's too monstrous: they know, they know!" cries the governess when she concludes that Flora has seen the ghost of Miss Jessel (p. 41).) 

But though the governess is terrified, I, as a reader, was not.  The ghosts didn't seem to be doing anything objectively scary: they manifest on the tower and by the lake, they occupy the staircase and peer in the window.  At one point, the governess hypothesizes that the ghosts may lure the children into harm by tempting them to climb the tower or wade into the lake (p. 66); such a stratagem would have scared me.  But the governess' larger concerns seem related to the vaguely bad characters that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel displayed when alive.  That said, the only "bad" thing positively attributed to Quint and Jessel is a violation of class boundaries:  "'SHE was a lady . . . . And he so dreadfully below,' said Mrs. Grose."  (p. 44.)  Hardly horror.

Of course, if the ghosts were frightening Miles and Flora, then the governess' fear would have been justified - and infectious.  But plainly neither Miles nor Flora is scared.  For example, when Miss Jessel first appears, Flora turns her back to the ghost and calmly proceeds to play with twigs by the side of the lake (p. 40). 

Indeed, at one point, Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, hazards the possibility that the children like seeing the ghosts; the governess wildly dismisses the notion:

"Dear, dear - we must keep our heads!  And after all, if she [Flora] doesn't mind it - !"  [Mrs. Grose] even tried a grim joke.  "Perhaps she likes it!"
"LIKES such things - a scrap of an infant!"
(p. 43.) 

Despite the force of her assertion, I couldn't help concluding that the governess' assumptions about children's capacities for liking "the dead restored" (p. 64) are a bit aggressive.  If the ghosts are, as the story posits, apparitions of people with whom the children had positive relations, then why the children should automatically apprehend danger in their restoration from the beyond seems unclear.

Publishing only six years after The Turn of the Screw, J.M. Barrie makes this precise point in Peter Pan and Wendy:

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them.  For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event happened, that when they were in the wood they met their dead father and had a game with him.
(p. 8).  J.M. Barrie's observation resonates with accuracy; the governess' behavior rings with hysteria. 

Consequently, I spent so much time wondering why the governess was assuming that the ghosts were a threat to the children, that I failed to be frightened.  Rather than feeling caught in the building suspense of the story, I felt distanced and analytical; my "anthropologist" switch got flipped, and I began asking epistemological questions about how the governess knew what she claimed to know.  (I found no satisfaction in the governess' propensity to answer Mrs. Grose's occasional outbursts of "[H]ow do you know?" with responses like, "I know, I know, I know!" (p. 35.))  As a tale of dread, the story failed to put the screws to me.

None of which is to say that I didn't find The Turn of the Screw fascinating and absorbing.  But it did confirm that Henry James is no Stephen King.  While that discovery doesn't particularly disappoint me, I do feel relief that Douglas won't ever have a chance to read Stephen King: Douglas couldn't handle him. 

(Image of Deborah Kerr as the governess, and Peter Wyngarde as the ghost of Peter Quint, in The Innocents, a film based on The Turn of the Screw, from The Guardian)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Turn of the Screw category.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is the previous category.

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