I have read The Turn of the Screw before. Henry James’ most famous ghost story is a classic of ambiguity. My previous reading, maybe a decade ago, was in an edition of James that insisted on stuffing other stories into the same binding, most of which I’ll probably never read. I located a reasonably priced edition containing only the novella I wanted and it is published by Heathen Editions. Obviously priding themselves on the unorthodox, Heathen Editions provides books with some little commentary, particularly pointing out unfamiliar words or explaining circumstances that many modern readers lack the training to spot. The edition ends with James’ own afterword to the story, something my larger James volume lacks. The story I remembered in part, but the notes also engaged me.
These notes aren’t numerous and they don’t distract. In my case I understood the words defined, but I appreciated some of the historical or literary context supplied. With so much literature available these days modern readers have to be drawn back into the classics. James’ style tends toward the choice of more words than would be strictly necessary to tell the tale. The fact that it was serialized helps to explain that. Like Middlemarch and The Woman in White, both of which I’ve posted on in the past, being serialized encourages a kind of verbosity that modern publishers of fiction eschew. At least in my limited experience. For The Turn of the Screw the slow building to the climax requires spreading out. The story itself could be summarized in a paragraph (which I won’t do, because you should read it yourself), but the feeling of dread has to grow as bits are slowly revealed.
One of the notes particularly caught my attention. In an oblique reference to David and Saul, the editor expanded the footnote a bit. The scene is when Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit sent by God and David is called in to help him with a kind of music therapy. David plays his lyre and Saul’s demons temporarily leave him. This is subtly referenced in chapter 18 of the Heathen Edition. The note briefly explains Saul and David and then, for the only time in the book, goes on to provide a reception history of the reference by informing the reader that Leonard Cohen also refers to this episode in his song “Hallelujah.” I’m sure the opening lines are familiar enough that I don’t need to risk violating copyright to quote them. So it was that while reading a ghost story the Bible was introduced, which, of course has been my research agenda for a few years now. A turn of the screw indeed.