Adventures with Words: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I’m old enough to remember how, back in the 1980s, it seemed like the horror genre was going to take over the world. Stephen King, of course, had started it: Carrie came out in 1974, Salem’s Lot in ’75, The Shining in ’77 and The Stand in ’78. Jumping on the bandwagon, a whole host of writers and publishers began churning out horror books through the following decade – and I was a big fan of them, picking lurid covers off the shelves at bookshops.

And then, it died. Not for Stephen King, of course, but for the rest. The blood-stained tracks became too trampled, the public lost interest, the publishers stopped publishing. The 1990s saw lots of articles written, asking variations on the question, who killed off the horror genre.

Now, having read The Turn of the Screw, I can answer the question. We did. We writers, we killed it off. Drove a stake through its heart, chopped its head off, pulled out its entrails and painted its drained blood upon the walls.

And that’s how we did it too: by piling up bodies, horror on horror, and forgetting that, for horror to work, there has to be something worse than death and the pain of dying; something much worse.

This is what makes The Turn of the Screw, and the other Victorian ghost stories, so effective: because these writers believed – or at least belonged to a culture that believed – that there are things worse than death. That a soul can be lost and, in its loss, something infinitely more precious than the mere pumping of blood and inflating of lungs is lost too.

After all, the problem with death, when that’s all there is, is that death ends everything. It’s the black curtain, the exit, the end, the close to suffering and the final release. Writing in a culture where death is the great, the sole, evil, robs horror of, well, its horror. Take away dread, the unspoken, wordless, formless dread of things and fates beyond and above and below death, and horror is reduced to variations on torture porn: how much can we make the protagonist suffer before his end? There is no horror in this, only the workings out of a monkey curiosity, drained of empathy.

So, for horror to work, then there must, indeed, be fates worse than death. It is the knowledge that this is true that makes The Turn of the Screw – despite Henry James’s rather curious prose style, so much more laboured and laborious than his brother, William James’s – into such a haunting book. And, reading it, tells us how flattened we have allowed our imaginative world to become.


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