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Paul Levine
The Turn of the Screw - Henry James “That’s why you develop a brain, so you can think about more than one thing at a time.” Bill Clinton.

Surely as a Rhodes scholar, President Clinton read Henry James (1853-1916) however, that quote does not fit with the Henry James I read where I had to devote 100% of my concentration on James' writing. At times I had to re-read passages after asking myself, “What?” "Huh?"

Written in 1898 when Harry Houdini, séances, spiritual mediums, and automatic (from the spirits) writing were subjects explored, demonstrated and readily accepted by the general public throughout English speaking nations, James’s book opens with the telling of ghost stories around Christmas, no less. Stories were considered the entertainment of the day.

Told in the first person, one of a number of holiday guests at an English country estate, the speaker, moves to Douglas who is also a guest. Another guest mentions a ghost story which includes a child. Douglas claims he can ‘turn the screw’ twice since ‘his’ story includes two children!

However, he leaves the guests in suspense for days since the story was written by an acquaintance (the third storyteller) from his past and is locked away in his London home. He calls to have the beautifully handwritten personal story to be delivered and in few days he begins reading directly from the personal story.

As you can see, the story moves from the the guest “I” to another guest, Douglas, to the final storyteller, who is a young woman. The storyteller is the daughter of a vicar, and hired as a governess for two young orphaned children (an older boy and a younger girl); it's her personal story.

The children's uncle, is a young and very attractive London bachelor, who wants the young woman to take all responsibility as a governess for the children who are located in his country estate, Bly. She’s smitten by the uncle and with hesitation takes the well paid position. How hard can governing two children be? One's even away at school.

The Turn of the Screw is studied in college literature classes and picked apart and dissected by critics, scholars, book clubs and the average reader much as myself.

Glancing through some reviews I was baffled and sometimes left curious by some of the comments. One fellow ended his somewhat brief comment by saying, “F*** you Henry James.” Please notice the lack of punctuation by the reviewer. When I read that I’m thinking to myself, WTF(?) and was curious not by the missing comma.

Going back through the book, I just happened upon one long paragraph which had one sentence divided by a semi-colon. The first part of the long sentence had 64 words, the second part, 61 words with 11 commas. The rule of thumb is no more than 36 (more or less) words. If more, then separate into two sentences. Apparently James didn’t read that word of caution to skilled writers. He likes long sentences and plenty of commas. Pay attention, readers. Those long sentences will give you pause in more ways than one.

The use of (or overuse) of punctuation is just one of many reasons the book is dissected by scholars including plenty of Goodreads.com readers. The ending is a wallop and I can only imagine what the group hearing the story at the countryside mansion thought. Oh, I forgot. What group was that?

If this book is on your ‘to-reads’ list, it is best read in the bleak winter when it’s cold, dark and damp. Around Christmas time?