Ghost Novel Review: The Turn of the Screw


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Publisher: Dover Thrift, 87 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

Perhaps you know the gist of the story: naïve, love-starved governess seeks countryside post teaching suspiciously angelic children who are wards of a handsome, mysterious, unavailable (emotionally as well as geographically) landowner.

The novella opens in a fireside gathering of friends eager to share ghost stories. The women are particularly thirsting for bloody and gory narratives. The host explains the author of the manuscript he holds is from his sister’s former governess, now dead. He then reads her tale. It seems the governess, after two interviews with a mysterious man, accepts the position and travels to Bly, an English country estate. The impressionable governess falls in love with the handsome uncle though he seems to want nothing to do with her or with his niece and nephew.

At Bly, the governess meets the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and her charges Miles and Flora. In no time, the governess finds herself caring deeply for the children even though she worries that something is amiss.

They are simply too perfect.

She has reason to worry. Miles’s school sends a letter expelling him for unspecified causes and Miles admits that he can be bad. Mrs. Grose believes a “too free” Peter Quint has corrupted the boy. Peter Quint was the valet and lover of the former governess Miss Jessel, both now dead. Soon, the governess is visited by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and comes to believe that they harbor evil intentions toward the children. However, no one else at Bly admits to witnessing the visitations. So, are these visitations a love-struck, neurotic governess’s imaginings, or is the worst kind of evil afoot?  


What I thought:

The narrator governess (and even this telling is remote as we are supposedly reading a decades-old text whilst we gather round our host’s hearth) reminded me of Hamlet both in her prevarication and, to a lesser degree, in the consequences of her final decisions.

Like Hamlet, she poses question after question. Do I dare? More to the point, when and how? Are the ghosts’ intentions mischievous or malevolent? Are the apparitions real or imaginary? (In truth, the narrator never asks herself this one.) The children innocent or possessed? As a parent, whenever my children are too perfect, too quiet, too agreeable, that’s the time to investigate.  

Meanwhile, the reader has questions of her own. Why is the uncle so remote and unconcerned about his young relatives’ welfare? Can I trust this narrator? Is the governess nuts (an industry term), sexually repressed, or merely an unfortunate caught up in otherwordly machinations beyond her control? Even the title gives off sexual overtones among its many meanings. I remember seeing this novella in my seventh grade classroom and hearing titters from the (mostly) male students. Then there’s the ending—abrupt and ambiguous—no tidy epilogue bookend here to go with the fireside prologue at the beginning.

As far as recommendations go, if you are the kind of person who enjoys ambiguity and subtle psychological meanderings, then you should pick this one up. If, on the other hand, you are of the peas-are-peas-and-carrots-are-carrots persuasion, then this novel might drive you as crazy as some have professed James’ narrator to be. Aside from that, The Turn of the Screw belongs in the canon of ghost literature, written by a master 19th century writer, inspiring many ghost novelists to come. See Maybe This Time.

For me, it was interesting to read this ghost story with its troubled (interpret this word as you will) narrator and nuanced shadings immediately after perusing The Heart-Shaped Box, a book which leaves no doubt about the veracity of its storyteller or the evil of its demon-ghost.


Free Guide to Literary Agents Writing Contest

Attention Writers: FREE! Guide to Literary Agents Contest for Women’s Fiction

I don’t subscribe to many online media sources, but I am a faithful reader of Guide to Literary Agents. For writers aspiring to be published, I particularly recommend two of their ongoing series: Agent Interviews and How I Got My Agent. The former is informative and the latter is inspirational.

Recently, Guide to Literary Agents has begun sponsoring free writing contests based on genre. I was disconsolate when I discovered I had missed the deadline for the Paranormal Romance contest. Strangely enough, after much study on my own and conversations with experts at the San Francisco Writers Conference this year, I realized that my novel Moonlight Dancer is actually Women’s Fiction. Imagine my surprise this week when Guide to Literary Agents announced the free Women’s Fiction Contest. See the contest details here.

If you have a finished, unpublished book length Women’s Fiction novel, you can enter this contest by the deadline of June 26.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to attend to my entry…

Good luck, everyone!

Writing Challenges

I like challenges, don’t you? Well, that kind, too. But what I meant was imposed challenges. For instance, among my hidden talents, I am a quiltmaker. A quiltmaking challenge might include a hideously ugly fabric everyone in the group is required to incorporate into a project. Often, the challenge pieces are displayed in a show. The results are fascinating, even stunning.

Writing challenges can take different forms. When I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference, one of the presenters, Janet Fitch, described her writing group. There, members would rotate the task of bringing one word. They would all write a piece incorporating that word and bring it to the next gathering. At one particular meeting, a member posed “wind”. Fitch began with that word, and the result was the best-selling novel White Oleander.

Publishing guru-diva-teacher Jane Friedman advocates that writers share their work on their blogs. To read an interesting article she wrote on the subject, click here. And while you’re at it, I suggest subscribing to her blog There Are No Rules. In that spirit, below you will find a short piece of mine that grew from a challenge in a workshop Charlotte McGuin Freeman led. We had been reading memoir vignettes such as comprises Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Our assignment was to write either a memoir vignette or a fake memoir vignette. (A few of those fake ones around these days, am I right?) We weren’t to tell the group whether our memoir was real or embellished. This turned out to be great fun.

So, I ask you, who so well know the nature of my soul, is the following real or is it fake?

Bodywork by Deb Atwood

Just goes to show you can’t believe what you read. I am no motorcycle mama!

So you ogled a picture of me in the paper. So I’m perched on the back of a Harley. So, so.

Take it from me, I was never anyone’s mama.

Fact is, I ride solo. And getting tangled up in a brawl is not my idea of fun. Nope. I like my fights like my men—fair and hands on. Most times, I can stop a fight without throwing a punch just by peeling down to my tank top, though I’ve never figured out what does it—that tip of lace marking cleavage or my sixteen inch biceps. You weigh less than 225 pounds, rest assured I can bench-press you.

My friends love to go out with me—south of Market, West Oakland clubs, whatever. My enemies get a good look at me and head the other way. Guess that’s how I got the nickname: Detour Deb.

Not my style to brag, just wanted to let you know I ride backseat to nobody. That day in question, I was tooling home from the Las Vegas Natural Bobybuilding Championships—where I took second, if you must know—and pulled into Boomtown, just me and Fat Boy. Trouble with me is, I gotta take in lots of protein. Otherwise, with my regimen, I flop belly-side up, and that’s not something you want out on the highway, straddling 665 pounds of hog.

Boomtown’s a biker-friendly hangout, but still, I park out on the back 40 lot. No sense inviting scratches when Fat Boy’s strutting the original paint job.

When the gunshots cracked, I was in the checkout line holding my protein shake and a map I’d snagged to chart my next route, just standing there dreaming of Nationals. The mart was swarming with bikers and mamas on account of the Harley centennial. Tons more than usual hitting the road, doing this whole Easy Rider thing, maybe. Anyhow, the shots fly, and we duck and scramble and pour out of the doors onto this wooden sidewalk they got going around the place.

The snarl of hogs firing up is deafening, I can tell you. Everyone shoving to get out of the way. Or into the fight. Chaos.

And I’m looking, and here’s this guy struggling with his hog, totally panicked. His bike knocked down and pinned in all the pandemonium, and it was a real shame, too. I’d noticed it earlier—cherry paint job. Shinier than it had a right to be, but isn’t that always the way? Like at my gym, the tightest spandex on the mushiest bodies. So this guy’s struggling with his machine and bullets are streaking. It was just a good idea to hightail it out of there.

You guessed it. I stopped. He was lucky that number one, I keep a cool head under fire, and second, my deadlift pull is 385 pounds. That, and his ride was a Hugger, a lightweight, IMHO. Found out later it weighed 486 pounds. Where are the judges when you need them? But to give this man credit, he could probably pull the remaining 101 pounds. This guy was so grateful he asks can he give me a lift.

Ha, ha, give me a lift. I had to laugh at that one. So I said he could truck me over to Fat Boy. When I climbed on the back of his bike, some idiot had the balls to shoot a pic, and that’s the photo you saw with the stupid caption: Bodybuilding Champion Turns Motorcycle Mama. You’d think they had enough stuff to write with the brawl going on.

Just not me to take a back seat, as I said, but I can’t say I minded the scenery in this case. The man’s backside was none too shabby—black leather vest all studded with silver and a thick ponytail. He wasn’t my type, but now and then I do like to get a good hank of tail between my teeth.

Ghost Novel Review: Heart-Shaped Box


The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Publisher: Harper Collins, 366 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

Ex-rock star Judas Coyne (born Justin Cowzinski) has seen it all and done everything good and bad, or believes he has. Now he collects grisly artifacts or memento mori just to make himself feel alive.When he hears about a ghost for sale on an auction site, he cannot resist purchasing it.

Once the black heart-shaped box arrives, Judas opens it to discover an old suit. Soon the suit manifests itself as a ghost whose purpose is to kill Judas and anyone associated with him, all related to the suicide of his step-daughter whom Judas had callously mistreated in his former metal band days. This ghost of misdeeds past is named Craddock—just about as Dickensian a name as you can get this side of 1843.   

Fortunately for Judas, and despite his actions to the contrary, his equally damaged, reformed drug addict/pole dancer girlfriend, Mary Beth, refuses to forsake him. She never blames him for the ill-advised purchase of the heart-shaped box that delivers to their doorstep a malevolent, revenge-seeking ghost with links to Coyne’s past.

Just like Dickens’s Scrooge, Judas must put the past right. With Mary Beth at his side, Judas drives his mustang deep into the South to find the woman who sold him the ghost and make amends. And in the process attempt to rid the world of the murderous Craddock.


What I thought:

Burned out but not burned up Judas Coyne (Symbolic allusion, anyone?) doth confess too much…as in he believes himself more monstrous than he is. A refreshing change, this sort of anti-Judas in search of justice. (Naturally, his given name is Justin.)

Joe Hill is a skilled practitioner of terse, tight writing. Every word seems to have been placed just so to evoke maximum effect with minimal prose. The language is darkly comic at times, grotesque at others, The writer knows how to infuse heart into a character who believes himself to be heartless. This is a journey novel, a sort of Huckleberry Finn trip down the Ohio River, or in this case, the long highway south in search of soul.    

If you like your ghosts on the dark side—or, I should say, char-broiled, as in burnt in hell—then I recommend Heart-Shaped Box. Generally speaking, I prefer my ghosts angst-ridden rather than demon-driven. Bemused rather than evil. However, once I cleared the hurdle of the demonic ghost, I enjoyed the ride, barreling through the rural South on a throaty Mustang in search of redemption.

So, yes, this novel is about revelation and redemption. (I’m a sucker for redemption novels as long as they are not saccharine; this one is anything but.) Instead, it is about the peeling away of sin and memory and the names by which we label both and each other. As Mary Beth (the afore-named Georgia) says to Justin (the erstwhile Judas), “The right words have a charge in them. Enough charge to bring the dead back to the living.”

Ah, yes, that would be redemption.