Book 10: The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

‘If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children -?’

Next up in my challenge is that trickiest of genres to pull off: the ghost story. In the art of scaring there is a delicate balance between the said and the unsaid, the shown and the suggested, which if tipped off centre shatters the illusion of horror. In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James conducts a masterclass in this balancing act of fear and suspense.

The premise behind James’s fiction is simple enough and not unfamiliar. A young, naive governess is sent to care for two orphaned children in an isolated country mansion; at this point alarm bells are already starting to clang and you can almost hear the step of a mad woman in the attic (Charlotte Bronte has a lot to answer for). Ominous too is her mysterious employer’s request that she not bother him with any news of his young charges (say no girl! I mentally scream at the book). As the governess makes the journey to her remote new home, the scene is set for blood-chilling bumps in the night.

James, however, is much too subtle for this. The portent-laden opening is followed by a protracted lull, laying a blanket of false security over readers. The children are charming beyond words, the housekeeper is welcoming and friendly, the house and grounds are beautiful – everything is, in short, too good to be true.

The beauty of James’s prose is that it builds an almost claustrophobic tension, a calm that is heavy with foreboding. Small mysteries are loaded with significance, creating the uncomfortable feeling that they will return to (quite literally) haunt the protagonist. Before long, sure enough, ghostly presences have been witnessed by the governess, a scandalous affair between the valet and the previous governess – both, of course, dead – has been uncovered, and a sinister threat to the children is feared. Another of James’s brilliantly subtle touches is to never specify this dreaded evil; it remains too horrific to be fully articulated by the governess and is thus all the more chilling for readers.

The term ‘unreliable narrator’ might well have been invented to describe James’s governess, whose tale leaves readers in just enough doubt about the truth of the events she describes. The novella’s supernatural occurrences are only ever witnessed by the governess and we have only her account to testify to what has happened, leading a whole school of critics to speculate that the entire affair is purely in the mind of the narrator. Such a theory appears to have considerable support, as there are numerous incidents that don’t quite add up and the governess is hardly portrayed as the most stable character.

But perhaps the most disturbing element of the tale is James’s depiction of the two seemingly angelic children and their governess’s troubling relationship with this pair of apparent cherubs. There is an eerie quality to these ‘perfect’ youngsters right from the start; all blonde hair, courtesy and unnatural intelligence, they are both too charming and too knowing for their own good. There is also an increasing discomfort that arises from the governess’s overwhelming and at times almost sinister attachment to her charges. Is this a concerned young woman innocently endeavouring to protect two children or a dangerously unstable tutor?

The real point is that we can never know. Had James specified whether the horror was external or inwardly imagined, his unique and spine-tingling ghost story would have lost its potency. As with all the best chillers, James keeps us guessing right to the end.

Next on the list … Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

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Book 9: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

‘All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma’

Once again, before I go any further I have to ‘fess up. As with a few other titles in my book challenge so far, I have seen the film of Never Let Me Go before reading the book, and in fact even reviewed it. At the time, despite a core of brilliant performances from Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield (who I might just have a slight soft spot for …), I felt there was something missing from this fairly good film that might easily have been great. Not so with Ishiguro’s novel.

In fact I experienced that usual sinking feeling of wishing I had read the book first. Not that the film is bad, and in many ways it is skilfully adapted from the novel, maintaining much of the tone, but this is a book that really benefits from a hefty punch of brutal shock. To give away the horror that gradually becomes apparent in the first few chapters would be to spoil the experience for other readers, but I can imagine that this slow unveiling would be effectively harrowing for those without as little as an inkling beforehand.

To give the plot in a nutshell without any spoilers, Ishiguro’s novel is narrated by the sensitive and insightful Kathy, who is looking back over her past and trying to come to terms with painful memories. Her life has always been closely wound up with the lives of her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, ever since their childhood together in Hailsham, an isolated and seemingly idyllic country boarding school. As they grow up, however, all three become aware of a dark shadow hanging over their future, a looming fate that is entangled throughout with the complex relationships between the trio.

While Ishiguro’s dystopian twist is a menacing and dominant presence throughout, it serves more as a constant backdrop than as the main feature. Where the novel could have been crudely moralistic, Ishiguro subtly probes the horrifying issue he has exposed, using the material around it to prompt difficult questions rather than ever directly confronting it. Although his message is important and should act as a chilling warning to all readers, this is a book that is just as much about love, friendship and the nature of memories.

A similar feeling that niggled while watching the film adaptation, however, also gnaws at me during the reading of this book. Perhaps I am too used to the prisoners of literary dystopias rebelling against their fate, but the resignation that permeates this novel was the most bitter pill to swallow. As I wrote in my review of the film, ‘the sacrificial lambs yield all too willingly to their fate’. Despite her other appealing qualities, Kathy’s passivity sometimes made me want to slap her, while even the feisty Ruth cannot summon the spirit to fight against the path laid out for her.

But perhaps, after all, it is this disturbing acquiescence which really gives the novel its eerie air of horror. Often it is the quiet, hidden away, swept under the carpet without any fuss sort of atrocities that are the most chilling and this is certainly the case in Never Let Me Go. People go on with their lives without a care and the whole haunting world portrayed by Ishiguro is suffused with Britishness. What hits the hardest about Ishiguro’s horrifying creation is that it seems all too plausible.

Next up … The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m still playing catch up with the blogging but the challenge remains on course!

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Book 8: The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

‘One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.’

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make: I adore Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. I saw each film more than once (*cough* three times) at the cinema and own, loathe as I am to admit it, the extended version DVDs. To complete the self-humiliation, I even own up to spending much of the time during which I should have been revising for my GCSEs gorging myself on hour after hour of behind-the-scenes special features.

So it’s rather shameful that until now I had not experienced the literary source. I read The Hobbit as a child, although admittedly I remember little more than the description of Bag End – which for some reason made quite an impression – and slowly trudged my way through The Fellowship of the Ring at around the time the film came out. But clearly at thirteen I could not appreciate the genius of Tolkien’s creation, because having returned to it and read the whole trilogy at the ripe old age of twenty one, I do think it might just deserve that prestigious label.

It is not so much the writing itself that bears the marks of brilliance, though Tolkien is also none too shabby a wordsmith, but rather the imaginative range and depth of the world he created that begs for applause and open-mouthed awe. The man dreamed up not just a whole fantasy realm but also a collection of different languages for the various creatures inhabiting it. The more cynical among us may be tempted to say that he had a little too much time on his hands, but what he achieved in this trilogy of books (not to mention all his other works of fiction set in this universe) can only be admired.

To summarise the plot would be a pointless and quite frankly near-impossible exercise; suffice to say that there’s a ring, and not the lovely, happy, wedding kind. It’s your classic battle of good versus evil, although Tolkien does mix in a few shades of grey with his stark black and white. But what is perhaps even more appealing about these novels than the good old-fashioned clash of goodies and baddies is their moving portrayal of the bonds of friendship. Or, to put it less elegantly and risk comparing it to the likes of I Love You Man (hilarious if quite silly film, in case you haven’t seen it), it’s basically one long bromance.

To really analyse these novels would require a mile-long essay that I am sure readers of this blog would not particularly appreciate, so I will give up here and not attempt to give any great insight. It is enough to say that they are a triumphant feat of imagination that set the bar for fantasy and remain a masterpiece. Now go and have a read for yourself.

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Book 7: Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

‘On the whole, I dislike my fellow-beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me.’

My reading challenge has taken me very swiftly from pastoral life as depicted by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd to Stella Gibbons’ parody of the rural tradition. Published in 1932, Gibbons’ witty and playful narrative about the eccentric, cursed Starkadder brood, a dilapidated farm and nasty goings on in the woodshed lightly pokes fun at the rural tragedies of the kind made popular by Hardy and his contemporaries.

Lively heroine Flora Poste has been orphaned and is left with nothing to live on but her wits and a hundred pounds a year. Blithely rejecting any suggestion that she works for a living, the resourceful Flora decides instead to live with some of her many relatives and writes out to a motley collection of aunts, uncles and cousins, eventually ending up with the Starkadders on their farm in Sussex. But her rural cousins turn out to be an odd bunch and the whole messy situation is clearly begging for Flora’s own foolproof brand of common sense to tidy it up.

While much of the novel is hilariously and pointedly funny, the opening is a little confusing in tone. The early scenes in London are light, comic and clearly satirical, but when the location shifts to Sussex the reader, like Flora, is left somewhat disorientated. Our first introduction to Cold Comfort Farm, glimpsed as ‘Dawn crept up over the Downs like a sinister white animal’, while supposedly mocking the hauntingly picturesque descriptive passages of the pastoral tradition, is a rather wonderful description in its own right.

With the Starkadders and their kin, however, we are on safer ground. Gibbons creates a cast of deliciously grotesque characters, from foolish old cow-loving Adam, to zealous preacher Amos, to reclusive, apparently mad matriarch Aunt Ada, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed. The ghosts of Hardy’s farm hands can be heard in their exaggerated rural dialect and so primitively rural are their ways that they do not even have afternoon tea – imagine! Gibbons also builds up a series of tantalising mysteries, once again in line with the genre she is parodying, from the unspecified incident in the woodshed to the hushed up wrong that has been done to Flora’s father. This may all be the framework of Gibbons’ satire, but it doubles up to make for a genuinely intriguing premise.

Before long Flora is industriously putting her common sense to use in mopping up the lives of the Starkadder clan, transforming eccentric dresser and nature-loving free spirit Elfine into an elegant but bland beauty, tempting Amos to pastures new and generally either moulding everyone to fit her idea of civilised company or conveniently removing them elsewhere. While all this is evidently written in sardonic mode, the novel loses some of its charm as it moves into this all too self-conscious phase of parody and I prefer Gibbons’ earlier imaginative portrait of the strange, ridiculous and often repulsive Starkadder family (beautifully complemented in my edition by Quentin Blake’s spot-on watercolour illustrations; Gibbons provides him with subjects barely less marvellously grotesque than those he so memorably depicted in Roald Dahl’s The Twits).

In another of the novel’s literary nods, almost every loose end is neatly tied up with a marriage and previously troublesome characters have their destinies settled in the turn of a page in true Jane Austen style; Flora’s ambition of one day writing a novel like Persuasion is very nearly achieved in life if not in literature. Meanwhile, the really interesting threads are left frustratingly hanging, no doubt in a deliberate move on Gibbons’ part to eschew the narrative resolution of the texts she parodies and to point out how essentially ridiculous such mysteries are. Yet – and I’m sure this makes me a very unsophisticated reader – I really did want to find out what, for goodness’ sake, happened in that woodshed!

One of the oddities of the text, apart from its collection of weird and wonderful characters, is the unspecified and only ever vaguely alluded to future setting. While written in the early 1930s and retaining much of the social machinery of its own age, including a class structure that is entirely intact, the novel incorporates futuristic elements such as video phones, frequent air travel and a war of some kind that has occurred in 1946, placing the world of the book at some time after this date. This patchy future setting, which seems to essentially be a society that is, apart from a handful of differences, identical to that of 1932, has no obvious function whatsoever and merely serves to bewilder readers.

Disappointing ending and technological inconsistencies aside, Cold Comfort Farm is an entertaining read and Flora is a charmingly flawed heroine; rather in the Emma mould, to return to Austen, although Flora never receives a scolding for her interferences. While the ending is again satirically making a point by aping other texts of the time, I could not help but feel a little let down by the spirited and politely feisty Flora’s very conventional and submissive fate.

Sadly, the eventual return to supposedly civilised society feels dull after the colourful world of Cold Comfort and Gibbons’ novel is always at its best when in the company of the bizarre but fascinating Starkadders. Just make sure you stay away from that woodshed …

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Book 6: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

‘Space […] is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.’

It’s not often that a book begins with the end of the world. But the destruction of the Earth is the very premise that kicks off Douglas Adams’ series of five books about rescued Earthling Arthur Dent and his exciting, dangerous and sometimes downright bizarre adventures around the Galaxy.

Poor Arthur Dent is not having a great day. After waking to discover a bulldozer about to demolish his house to make room for a new bypass, he is soon faced with the rather more catastrophic prospect of the entire Earth being obliterated in favour of a hyperspatial express route. If this were not enough, he also discovers that his eccentric friend Ford Prefect is in fact not a human at all but an alien from somewhere called Betelgeuse. A lot to take in before lunchtime.

Douglas Adams’ collection of science-fiction books started life as a radio series and these origins can still be detected in the novel. Filled with countless sparklingly witty lines, the focus of Adams’ fiction is surface dazzle, cleverly playing around with language and constantly cracking jokes – all aspects that would have jumped out of the radio – rather than delving into character progression. Arthur Dent, for instance, ends the book in much the same way as he began it: weary, confused and in search of a cup of tea (and who blames him?). Granted, he knows a bit more about space, but this doesn’t essentially alter his personality.

Not that this is a criticism. Despite having barely any character progression, each of Adams’ vivid cast of players leaps from the page fully formed and they all feel surprisingly real – if a little alien in some cases. Where else would you find a depressed robot, a man with two heads and speaking mice all in one book? Furthermore, this is far from being a character driven narrative and it is the dazzling cleverness and imagination of it all that makes an impression. Often not only laugh out loud but side-splitting, belly laugh, tears streaming down the face funny, it is a delight of a read that indulged both my funny bone and my inner geek. Taking on a whole genre and successfully, gently spoofing it while simultaneously maintaining a geeky sort of respect for it is no mean feat.

There is the feeling, however, that this is only a fragment of the whole, one jigsaw piece of a bigger picture. While it is packaged as a complete novel, I cannot help but feel that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is only really setting up the later episodes, and while it is very entertaining in its own right I do now think that I need to go away and read the subsequent four books. This, I suppose, is the intended effect, but it would have been a little more satisfying for the novel to be more of a complete entity in itself.

Funny as it is, I would hesitate in recommending this to any readers who do not have at least a small measure of appreciation for sci-fi, as the jokes may fall slightly flat for those who do not enjoy the genre. But for a closet sci-fi fan like me, Adams’ book is a hilarious trip around the stars that is very British, very clever and very very funny.

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