How appropriate that the thirteenth book I would finish would be a collection of Henry James’ ghost stories? And that on the same day, I would visit #13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, home of the Sir John Soane’s Museum-a rather quirky museum of collectables inside a free mason’s house?
Having never read any of James’ works, a recent acquaintance advised I pick something of his up and read it immediately after finishing The Scarlet Letter. I couldn’t remember which title I was supposed to read so I went with the one that immediately caught my eye, The Turn of the Screw.
There’s something about James I quite like, although the way he throws around commas concerns me a bit. Both of us spent the majority of our lives in the US, specifically on the East Coast, and then developed a love for the UK. His writing is American but at first glance could pass for British. He doesn’t fully belong to either place and seems to pick and choose the pieces of each country’s culture he likes best, much as I do. My one problem with him is that each of the stories was a bit challenging to get into-one small detail missed and everything was lost. However, once I was able to focus, I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and happened to get wrapped up in their anxieties and jealousies.
The first story, “The Turn of the Screw,” was by far the strongest. A young governess moves to a countryside house to take care of two young children whose parents died in India a few years earlier. Their uncle, their sole guardian, has strictly advised that no one, under any circumstances, should attempt to contact him and that the governess is now entirely responsible for them. All is well until the ghosts of two characters previously in close contact with the children begin to appear. We have to wonder whether the governess has gone insane or if the ghosts are really there. Are the children wicked or simply confused by her strange behavior?
The second story, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” was the most accessible but the silliest of the lot. James hoped to avoid the over the top nature of regular ghost stories but certainly came close to doing just that with this one.
In the third, “The Friends of Friends,” a woman insists that her best friend and husband-to-be, both witnesses of supernatural activity in their younger days, must meet. However, neither are able to be in the same place at the same time due to one excuse or another-the delay lasts years. Eventually they are able to make a date, but the main character, who suddenly grows scared after learning that her friend’s husband has died, forces a cancellation. The two find a way to each other and the woman shortly dies. The main character insists that her fiancé has become obsessed with her and sees her ghost every night. They break their engagement, neither of them marries, and he dies a few years later. Was she right about the ghost or did her jealousy overcome her? Although I found the story hard to follow at times I liked the basic idea behind it.
The last story, “The Jolly Corner,” was the weirdest. A man moves abroad and has a life of leisure instead of staying home. He comes home to sell his old house and imagines that his alter ego is stuck inside. He becomes obsessed by it and tries to find out what his other self would look like. This story was a bit dramatic, and reminded me a bit of some French short stories I read once upon a time, but it intrigued me. As someone who has moved house an awful lot, I often wonder what life would have been like if I had stayed in one place.
Overall I enjoyed the stories but was no where near as moved by them as I was by The Scarlet Letter.