As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've been intrigued by Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw for some time, ever since seeing a comic book version of the story in my middle school library. I have four movie versions of the story on DVD (the best, of course, being 1961's The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr), and I look at any pastiches by different authors (like Joyce Carol Oates' "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly") with keen interest. So when I learned of a book in which the events related in The Turn of the Screw are investigated by none other than Sherlock Holmes himself (I'm a big Holmes fan), I got it as soon as I could.
Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly is actually a collection of three stories, with the title story bookended by two smaller, unrelated tales. The author, Donald Thomas, was born and raised in
The big thing that has made The Turn of the Screw such an enduring classic is the furious debate over the reliability of the story's narrator. Are the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel real, as the unnamed governess believes, or are they just figments of her imagination? Well, I'm sure you can guess Holmes' opinion as to the existence of ghosts (although he doesn't deny their existence outright -- when asked by the man who hires him if he believes in ghosts, he replies, "Bring me the evidence, and I shall sift it as a rational enquirer. Probably I shall find a rational explanation. If not, and all other possibilities are exhausted, I must consider whether these events may not be produced by causes beyond my power to detect. To conclude otherwise would make me a bigot."). But I also don't think it's spoiling anything to say that what the governess saw, at least in this version of the story, aren't just figments of her imagination.
There are several things that Mr. Thomas does that Henry James does not. For one thing, he gives the governess a name (Victoria Temple), and a surname to Miles and little Flora (Mordaunt) -- although it turns out Flora died of diphtheria after being taken to
Also, I feel compelled to say that Thomas' prose is a lot more readable than James'. When I was in high school, the English teachers taught us how to diagram a sentence, which I thought was a complete waste of time -- until I read The Turn of the Screw. Here's an example of what I mean (from the first paragraph of Chapter II):
The postbag, that evening -- it came late -- contained a letter for me, which, however, in the hand of my employer, I found to be composed but of a few words enclosing another, addressed to himself, with the seal still unbroken.
Why not say:
The evening postbag came late. It contained a short letter for me from my employer, and another (unopened) letter addressed to him.
Ernest Hemingway he ain't.
This is probably why I've read no other work by James. And would the daughter of a poor country parson talk like this? It doesn't seem realistic that a young person in her early twenties, given to jumping to conclusions, would think in such complex sentences. In his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature," H. P. Lovecraft wrote, "In The Turn of the Screw Henry James triumphs over his inevitable pomposity and prolixity sufficiently well to create a truly potent air of sinister menace…James is perhaps too diffuse, too unctuously urbane, and too much addicted to subtleties of speech to realize fully all the wild and devastating horror in his situations, but for all that there is a rare and mounting tide of fright…" (This is H. P. Lovecraft saying this. Have you read him?) Anyway, Donald Thomas doesn't write anything like that. At least when he's writing as Dr. Watson, he is very readable.
I won't spoil the story by revealing the identity of the dastardly villain behind all of this. But I will say that I highly recommend this book.