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Hair-raising Halloween Reading

Today, I'm venturing out of my more typical recipe posts to do a literature review.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James was perhaps my favorite reading in my college literature course, even though it scared me out of my wits. (I would advise against reading this book on a dark, rainy night with the window open. It enhances the dramatic effect of the novel a bit too much!) This story makes for a great Halloween read, and it goes fast too, with only 85 pages of text. My review focuses on the setting, which is a major contributing factor to sense of horror and tension in the story. No spoilers here, so you can keep reading!

Bly Estate: Setting the Paranormal Scene for The Turn of the Screw

All great gothic literature is composed of several aspects that instill a sense of horror in the reader. A few of these characteristics include a supernatural presence and an ancient estate. Look at any piece of gothic literature - The Fall of the House of Usher, The Most Dangerous Game, or Dracula - all of them contain the trademark spooky mansion. In Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Bly Estate provides the perfect backdrop for a mystery of increasing tension. The descriptions of the manor and its grounds reflect this, as the estate grows darker and colder by the day.

When the new governess first arrives at Bly, she is surprised to find the residence so bright and well-maintained, as she had been expecting something much drearier. She is also overwhelmed by the estate's grand exterior. Coming from a poor family, the governess was impressed by the finely appointed rooms and felt privileged to be employed there. In fact, she is so caught up in the manor's romantic appearance that she chooses to ignore some foretelling occurrences. At night, she imagines that she hears faint sounds like the cry of a child or a footstep before her door. Only looking back as she writes this narrative does the governess realize the significance of what she heard in the night.

The setting grows darker over time, both literally and figuratively. Throughout the story, there are several instances where lights are blown out. When the governess encounters the ghost of Peter Quint on the staircase "[her] candle, under a bold flourish, went out." Also, as she is putting the children to be on night, there is "an extraordinary blast and chill, a gust of frozen air and a shake of the room as if, in the wild wind, the casement had crashed in." This causes the bedroom candle to be extinguished. The reader can only suppose that a supernatural presence was the cause. While the setting continues to blacken, the story's sense of inevitable doom is brought to a new level.

The autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. ~ Henry James

Bly's transformation to a true gothic mansion is complete by the change of season. "The autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theatre after the performance - all strewn with crumpled playbills." Reading this passage, one can imagine how vacant the environment appeared, and what sort of feelings that would evoke. The governess likely felt exposed and unprotected against whatever paranormal being might cross her path next.

Though Bly Estate does not at first fit the role of the traditional haunted mansion, it certainly does by the end of the story. With each sinister event that occurs - with every "turn of the screw" - the estate becomes more shadowed and menacing.

If you would like to follow up the novel with a story-based film, be sure to check these out!


The Turn of the Screw, 2009

Featuring Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens in their pre-Downton Abbey days, as well as Mark Umbers of Home Fires. (How did I not know about this?!?! Some of my favorite British actors, all in one production! It is definitely on my "To Watch" list.)

The Innocents, 1961

If you prefer a good old-fashioned black-and-white film, this would be the one to watch. The movie has excellent ratings and stars Deborah Kerr (The King and I ) as the governess.

'Til next time,



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