Book Review: The Turn of The Screw by Henry James

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A spooky gothic ghost story with a great atmosphere and much tension, but the writing style takes quite a bit of getting used to.  The ambiguity of the narrative ensures the story stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.  4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.

Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…

But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.

For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

Favourite Quote

I couldn’t chose between the two:


The apparition had reached the landing half-way up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where, at sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from the garden.


Dishonoured and tragic, she was all before me; but even as I fixed and, for memory, secured it, the awful image passed away.  Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers.


My review of The Turn of The Screw is a mixed one…

I read this as 2018’s Halloween Read, because I remembered a TV adaptation I saw as a teenager that nicely spooked me out.  I have been planning to read this for a number of years, but my copy had become lost amongst the numerous books on my shelves.  I stumbled across it whilst searching for a different book in the summer and rather sensibly set it aside…

I both enjoyed The Turn of The Screw and found it frustrating to read.  My thoughts on it run somewhat like the lines of a nursery rhyme: when it was good, it was very, very good but when it was hard to read, it was horrid.

Where the spooky events occurred, they were indeed perfect.  The tension during these passages is palpable and the atmosphere conjured, exquisitely gothic.  My heart rate increased as I read these pages and I could feel myself tense up, as if I, along with the governess, was witness to the occurrences.  If a writer wants to learn how to write an atmospheric, tense, spooky ghost story, I recommend this book to them for these scenes alone.

As for the style of writing, it takes quite a bit of getting used to and isn’t at all that easy to read.  The sentence construction is unusual, and sentences are heavy and overly long.  There is also quite a bit of interrupted dialogue.  This does, unfortunately, detract from the enjoyment of reading the story and slows the pace considerably.

Another issue I had with the story was the very abrupt ending.  I felt that it needed something else after the last chapter to bring the story to a proper conclusion.  As it was, I was left feeling adrift after the final scene and dissatisfied.

But, the triumph of the story is certainly in its ambiguity.  The psychological undertones manipulate what is and isn’t real until you can’t help but ask, what is really going on?  Does the governess really see what she thinks she sees, or is she mad?  Are there ghosts?  Are the children creepy or innocent?  In my opinion, there is nothing in the story that suggests these children are the angels the governess claims them to be…but, as for the rest I still can’t decide.

It’s so hard to rate this.  I read it at Halloween for it’s spookiness and in this respect, it delivered, and yet, reading it was hard-going and almost chore-like. 4 stars sounds high after this review, but 3.5 doesn’t sound high enough, methinks…



Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

the-woman-in-black-front-cover[This review may contain spoilers]

The Woman in Black was my 2016 Halloween read, and my, was it a great choice.

Arthur Kipps works for a London law firm that is in charge of the estate of one Mrs Alice Drablow.  On her death, Kipps is sent to her home, Eel Marsh House, Crythin Gifford, in the middle of a mist-filled nowhere surrounded by marsh, to go through her papers to ensure that all is in order.

However, as soon as he arrives in the small agricultural town, it becomes apparent that this is not the easy, fun task he thought it would be.  This is not some leisurely, country jaunt.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite and it all begins with the glimpsing of a strange woman dressed in black at the funeral of Alice Drablow, a woman no one will talk to him about.  As an outsider with no knowledge of the local history, he has no idea what his sighting portends…

The Woman in Black is a psychological ghost story that spends its time building up to a very creepy atmosphere, one that is heightened by that which isn’t said rather than that which is.  The not knowing what everyone else knows is certainly a clever way of increasing tension within the narrative.  Only once it is deemed that Arthur Kipps has witnessed enough himself, will anyone reveal anything to him.

I’m not often spooked by spooky things, but there were a few times reading this that I felt chilled to the bone.  The use of repetition, in particular, was very creepy, both in terms of describing sound, but also in the theme.  Not only is Eel Marsh House haunted, but so is Kipps, by his experience.

The downsides to this book were few and minor, and perhaps only recalled because the rest of the book was just so good.  The ending felt very abrupt compared to the slow-burn of the majority of the story, and yet the final words are almost harrowing in their bluntness:

They asked for my story.  I have told it.  Enough.

There was also a little puzzle of an inscription that didn’t make sense to me, and I wish that it expressly stated when the story was set though it definitely had the feel of a Victorian Gothic ghost story to it.

The positives far outweighed the negative, and included that the setting was perfect for this type of story and really captured the essence of Victorian Gothic spookiness.  The characters also helped in crafting the narrative into a piece of chilling literature.  One of my favourites was the brave dog, Spider, whose fearlessness juxtaposed well the feelings of terror experienced by Kipps, which again, served to increase the tension.  The author is a great storyteller and says just enough to make you wonder, to keep you reading.

The Woman in Black was a great read, one that I am certain I will return to, and often, in the future.  If you enjoy ghost stories or are looking for a fitting tale to read one cold, dark night, this would be a very good choice.  Also, if you would like to try you hand a writing a ghost story, this book illustrates well how to successfully accomplish it.

Book Review: The Seance by John Harwood

The Seance by John Harwood is a Victorian mystery that captures the imagination and makes for compelling reading.

The book begins in London in 1889, with Constance Langton, whose family has never quite recovered after the death of her sister, Alma, some years earlier.  Raised alone and unloved by her parents, she finds herself drawn into the world of the spiritualist, if only to try and abate her mother’s enduring grief.  However, what happens is far removed from what she expects.

Then Constance learns that she has inherited Wraxford Hall, a house in Suffolk with a dark and sinister past, where stories of ghosts, murders and strange disappearances abound.  She finds herself drawn into the mysteries, desperate to learn the truth for in her heart she knows all is not as it seems.  When a man from the Society for Psychical Research wishes to carry out an investigation at Wraxford Hall, Constance agrees, and soon finds herself in the isolated, decaying house that she has read so much about.

But how will she fare in it when it has been the ruin of so many others?  And perhaps more importantly, will she find the answers she seeks?

I don’t often discuss book covers when reviewing books but I was instantly drawn to the cover for The Seance, in the same way that Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist caught my eye.  The descriptions of Wraxford Hall were vivid and gloriously spooky.  The separate narratives that combine to create the story work so well together, each revealing little pieces of the tale at a time.  The characters are engaging and carry off their respective roles with ease.

As I worked my way through The Seance, I couldn’t help but think of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  The book is so cleverly written that when you start reading you believe you know you are reading a ghost story.  The question is, are you?

I was absolutely captivated by this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.  I can honestly say that The Seance is one of my ten favourite reads of the year, and in my opinion, you will not be disappointed.  It is one of those books in which a reader can very easily get lost…

Book Review: The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

As soon as I saw the cover to The Somnambulist, full of Victorian Gothic charm, I knew I had to read it…

The tale centres on the seventeen year old Phoebe Turner, who has been brought up by a very strict religious mother and carefree aunt, a singer in a London music hall.

One evening, Phoebe accompanies her aunt to the music hall, unbeknown to her mother, and this one act, it seems, sets off a number of life-changing events.

The story is full of twists and turns; secrets are revealed, mysteries unravelled, and soon all becomes clear that life as Phoebe Turner knew it wasn’t real at all…Heartbreak, grief, loss, love, lies, deception, spiritualism…very Victorian…very Gothic…

My only gripe with this book was that there were a few passages that felt slow and even a little hard work.  However, persevering was certainly worthwhile.  Essie Fox manages to capture two vastly different locations with ease…the hustle and bustle of Victorian London as well as the quiet, eerie charm of a country estate, Dinwood Court, a world away in Hertfordshire.

The historical detail is accurate and vivid, helping to bring the story to life, and the characters on the whole were easy to engage with.

Over all, an enjoyable read.