Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH! Day 1: Distorted with Epileptic and Reverberant Laughter

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is primarily known for two things: being a classic – some would say masterful – example of the traditional Victorian ghost story; and for being a classic – SWSM -- example of a story that only pretends to be a traditional Victorian ghost story, but whose supernatural elements can, in fact, be explained away as the manifestations of the narrator’s broken psyche.

I think it’s a ghost story.

Before I explain why I think that, first let me provide a synopsis: a man named Douglas promises a group of friends, all of whom have been trading ghost stories, that he has a story to beat them all, and it’s true, to boot. It seems he once knew a woman who was hired by a man to be the governess to his niece and nephew, whose parents are deceased. This man was completely indifferent to the well-being of these children – named Flora and Miles – but had just enough sense of responsibility to be willing to pay someone else to care.

And here Douglas hands the reins of the story over to the governess herself, in the form of a letter (a really, really long letter) she sent to him describing the horrific events she experienced during her time at Bly, the house where the children live. Fairly soon, the governess realizes that something’s a bit off around Bly. The children are wonderful – cute, smart, loving, all of that. But she’s become pretty certain that she’s seeing ghosts. She sees them on the grounds at night, through windows, on one of Bly’s huge towers. There are two of them, a man and woman, and when the governess describes their appearance to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, she learns that they very closely resemble Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, two former servants of Bly, who, I hardly think I need to tell you, are both dead.

Miss Jessel was the previous governess, and Quint was a clever man who nevertheless had developed a reputation as a man who harbored many dark, perverse secrets, none of which are specified, but which seemed to be largely sexual in nature (and may have included pedophilia). And the two of them apparently had some sort of relationship when they were alive. Add to this the fact that not only is the new governess seeing these two creep around the grounds (and, eventually, the house), but she’s become convinced that both Miles and Flora are seeing them, too, but are hiding this knowledge from her and Mrs. Grose.

So, why do some people who read this novella believe that the ghosts are real, and others don’t? I think the problem begins with syntax. My own experience with the work of Henry James, before reading The Turn of the Screw, was limited to having read Daisy Miller and Washington Square last year. Both of those works were written before James entered his difficult, experimental phase, and the prose of both is fairly straightforward. The Turn of the Screw was written after James started to turn his sentences inside out, but that is only seen in the main part of the story, the part told by the governess in first person. The first part, which is told in third person and describes Douglas’s build up to the main story, is as straightforward as Daisy Miller. But when we get into the governess’s head, the sentences can get a little odd:

The homage of which they were so lavish succeeded, in truth, for my nerves, quite as well as if I never appeared to myself, as I may say, literally to catch them at a purpose in it.

I admit, that one’s a bit tough. Still, I think I understand it: even though at this point in the story the governess is sure that the children are hiding dark and ominous secrets, they are still able to not only present themselves as a pair of wonderful, loving, generous children on the surface, but to do so in way that seems neither forced nor insincere. Elsewhere, James ups the ante with this:


I recollect counting over perfectly the possibilities, reminding myself that nothing was more natural for instance than the appearance of one of the men about the place, or even of a messenger, a postman or a tradesman’s boy, from the village. That reminder had as little effect on my practical certitude as I was conscious – still even without looking – of its having upon the character and attitude of our visitor. Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things they absolutely were not.

So, clearly at this point the governess has come to believe that…wait, hold on, what?? Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things they were absolutely not?? I…I don’t know what that sentence means. And I’ve given you a reasonable amount of context to allow you to take your own stab at deciphering it. I gave up long ago.

Is this tortured syntax James’s way of clueing in his readers to the fact that all is not well inside the governess’s head? Maybe. Or maybe it’s simply his way of distinguishing her voice from the voice in the novella’s first section. Not only that, but how is the governess able to so closely describe the appearances of both Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, two people she’s never seen before? I also believe that the ending of the story, which I’ll avoid spoiling, is impossible to explain, using evidence provided by James, without taking the supernatural element at face value. Yes, the only people in the room are the governess and the child, and we only get the governess’s point of view. But if what happens isn’t what the governess describes, then what in the world is it? I have come across one interpretation, but it is even more tortuous than that sentence I quoted in italics earlier.

In any event, I thought The Turn of the Screw was fairly strong. A friend of mine, who is much better read in James than I am, actually warned me away from it, but I was able, with a minimum of wincing and rapid blinking, to push my way through it, and I honestly found the last sentence to be pretty devastating. Not only that, but now I can finally watch The Innocents.

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H. P. Lovecraft is widely considered to be on of the greatest writers of horror fiction in the 20th century. Whether or not you agree with that, it would be hard to argue that he isn’t one of the most influential. His Cthulhu stories – most of his work falls under that label – are, at least in theory, the essence of horror. They describe mankind as a race whose days are numbered, because the Great Old Ones, the demonic gods who once rampaged through the universe, led by the massive, be-tentacled Chthulhu, are waking up, and when they do they will devour us all. For Thomas Ligotti, a modern horror writer whose work I will be talking about later this month, Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones are metaphors for the utter wastefulness and uselessness of life, as well as the cold, shrieking inevitability of death.

First off, happy Wednesday, everybody. Second, I have to admit that I agree with Ligotti on this. It would be very difficult to read any of Lovecraft’s stories, including “Pickman’s Model” and “The Rats in the Walls” (the two stories ostensibly under discussion here) and not come away with the impression that Lovecraft was a man who had several of what we today might refer to as “issues”.

The problem with Lovecraft, though, is that even though he does have strengths as a writer, his weakness can be incredibly glaring. Take “The Rats in the Walls”, for instance. This tells the story of an American man, our narrator, who buys back his European family home, after the death of his son in World War I and the discovery, by that son, that their family roots run deep and dark, and their history is full of murder and death-cult-based blood orgies. In fact, that the family name itself is feared throughout the continent. And one can easily see why:


Anchester had been the camp of the third Augustan legion, as many remains attest, and it was said that the temple of Cybele was splendid and thronged with worshippers who performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest.

This in itself isn’t really bad, but ten pages of it gets a bit rich. And at fifteen pages, that’s what this story is; that and the narrator, after having settled into his new home with his cat (whose name is so racist I won’t repeat it here), starts to hear the sound of rats scuttling behind the, you know walls. Well, that’s what the story is for ten pages. The last five involves the narrator, his friend, and seven experts plumbing the depths of the basements and sub-basements of this enormous house, all the while their discoveries becoming more disturbing, until we finally get to the moment that displays Lovecraft’s greatest gift: his sense of the awe-inspiring nature of otherworldly, mind-bending, epic horror.

But ultimately, “The Rats in the Walls” didn’t work for me. It was too much of a chore. “Pickman’s Model”, on the other hand, is more successful. The narrator of this story is a member of the Art World (further details are neither forthcoming or needed), and we meet him as he's preparing to describe to his friend why he has severed all personal and professional ties with an artist named Pickman. It all has to do with the fact that Pickman, a "weird" artist, has been churning out one painting after another of a nature so immensely disturbing that not only has our narrator distanced himself from the man and his work, but, we find out, he is merely the latest in a long line of critics, curators and fellow artists to do so. Pickman's work depicts things that could not and should not exist in the real world, but is so skilled at doing so that others have a hard time even looking at these paintings without feeling their minds beginning to snap a little. People tend to go mad pretty easily in Lovecraft stories...

There was one thing called 'The Lesson'- Heaven pity me, that I ever saw it! Listen- can you fancy a squatting circle of nameless dog-like things in a churchyard teaching a small child how to feed like themselves? The price of a changeling, I suppose- you know the old myth about how the weird people leave their spawn in cradles in exchange for the human babes they steal. Pickman was showing what happens to those stolen babes- how they grow up- and then I began to see a hideous relationship in the faces of the human and non-human figures. He was, in all his gradations of morbidity between the frankly non-human and the degradedly human, establishing a sardonic linkage and evolution. The dog-things were developed from mortals!

This story is about seven pages long, so best to end things here, but I thought this story was very strong, more intimate and of a smaller scale than I'm used to from Lovecraft. It plays out in the manner of a Twilight Zone episode, though it obviously pre-dates that show by decades. The other difference between this story and The Twilight Zone is that, on the show, Rod Serling was sincere about his message, whereas Lovecraft has no message to impart, and is instead sincere about the horror.

5 comments:

Jonathan "Mad Dog" Lapper said...

I haven't read The Turn of the Screw since my college days but I remember liking although finding it a bit verbosely convoluded at times. But still, it's a great story although now I'm not sure if I'm remembering the book or The Innocents. I just can't be sure. But I'm watching The Innocents again this October so it will be fresh in my head. Alas, I don't think I'll give Turn of the Screw another try. But a nice review you put up there.

And Lovecraft I've never read so I can't say much about that. Sorry.

And work's been hellish which is why I couldn't even engage on my own damn blog today after lunch. And I got home late and blah, blah, blah. Long story short, I will reply to your e-mail soon, I didn't forget.

Rick Olson said...

Like ol' Mad Dog, I haven't read this in like forever. But this is a great review of the story, not that I really remember it at all.

And I would reply to your email a lot sooner than Mad Dog, if you'd just send me one.

bill r. said...

Oh, man, what a bitch it was to get this thing written and posted...twice. It sapped my energy, I don't mind telling you. For the most part, these posts are going to be a lot shorter than this one, if for no other reason that I'll be forced to write primarily about short stories, as I can only read so many novels in a month.

Anyway, I'm glad at least you guys read it. Things will go more smoothly from here on out. I hope.

Marilyn said...

I believe I understand that passage you couldn't make sense of. In the same way that you wouldn't think anything of a messenger or worker showing up on an estate to do some business, the governess feels that it must be the most natural thing in the world that ghosts should show up and do their business, just as if they were corporeal workmen.

I read The Turn of the Screw long ago - the only James I ever attempted - and felt that it was a ghost story. In screen versions (particularly the one with Kerr), the psychological elements are emphasized to keep doubt alive.

bill r. said...

You may be right, Marilyn, but I've read that damn paragraph so many times trying to work out that one sentence that at this point the whole thing sounds like gibberish to me.

Either way, I can't help but think there must have been a better way to say it.

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