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Ghost stories and Henry James

4 November 2019

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nearly 50 years ago someone found a copy of The Turn of the Screw in an old house where I was staying. I recognised the author as someone quite famous, and recalled that some of his books had been set for English literature classes at the university I attended, though I hadn’t known that he wrote horror stories. So I read it. After a couple of chapters it seemed familiar, and I realised that the plot was the same as that of a film I had seen about ten years previously, called The Innocents.

I was rather put off by the turbid (and turgid) style — he put pronouns in strange places, which made one read things that were not there, and the word order was very peculiar, but the story was interesting enough. I may, in reading the book, have confused my memory of the film with that of another near-contemporary film, The Servant. In both The Innocents and The Servant the theme was how servants corrupted the innocent, though in the former the innocents were children aged 8 and 10, and the servants were dead.

When I saw this volume of collected ghost stories by Henry James, I thought it might be interesting, and it was long enough since I had read The Turn of the Screw to want to read that one again. But having reached the end, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read any more of Henry James. The last story in the volume, “The Jolly Corner” was excruciatingly boring, and could probably have been told better if cut down to two or three pages. It was lengthened by the need to read every sentence two or three times to find out what the author was saying.

While I was reading it I went to bed and thought I would read a few pages before going to sleep, but I accidentally knocked a copy of Pepys’s diary off the shelf, and read the preface and a few entries opf that instead. And O how refreshing it was to read lucid 17th-century prose instead of Henry James’s 19th-century verbiage.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old a school teacher used to read ghost stories to us, and part of the attraction, at that age, was how scary they were. They were set in unusual places and described unusual circumstances, and that in itself set the scene for unusual and scary happenings. Some of them were by M.R. James, which David Levey recommended at one of our literary coffee klatches, and I’ve said more about them in this article on Christianity and horror literature. Now I’ve become old and jaded, and it takes a lot to scare me. Instead I look for a meaning beyond the surface. A ghost story needs to be more than just scary, it needs some kind of symbolic meaning, which Henry James doesn’t really provide.

This, however, was one of those instances where the film was better than the book. The film told the story directly, rather than inundating it with a lorry-load of subordinate clauses.

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