loulamac’s #CBRV review #70: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

the turn of the screw

The British Film Institute in London has a ‘Gothic’ season on at the moment, and will be screening a fair few ghost stories over the next few weeks. The 1961 film ‘The Innocents’ is of course one of them, which prompted me to re-read the source novel. While I’ve become a coward in recent years, I do love things that go bump in the night, and so was hoping I’d be gripped by a book that’s so often touted as one of the great examples of psychological horror. I wasn’t.

A group of friends gathered in an old house are presented with a manuscript that one of the group was given by a governess many years before. It tells the tale of her first position, where she was employed as the ward of two orphaned children. Her employer, the children’s uncle, has little interest in them, and so she is dispatched to care for them in his secluded country house. This physical isolation mirrors her emotional solitude, as the only company she has are the two young children and the housekeeper. The governess has not been long at the house, when she begins to see a man and woman in the grounds. On describing them to the housekeeper, she realises that she is seeing the ghosts of the previous governess Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, another employee who was also her lover. These two had intense relationships with the children in life, and the governess decides she must do all she can to stop the spirits from interfering with the children in death. The real battle comes when the children reject her attempts to protect them, and seem to conspire against her.

There has been much debate in literary circles about whether the ghosts are real, or if the governess is insane. I took the book at face value, and chose to go with the notion that the evil spirits wish to take possession of their erstwhile charges. Unfortunately though, I found the prose impenetrable and convoluted, which hindered any building sense of menace and atmosphere. While some passages (particularly the one where the governess sees her predecessor sitting below her on the stairs) are creepy, this is no The Haunting of Hill House.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #83: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Ghost_Story_ButcherI am really, really glad I didn’t give up on this series. It took longer than it probably should have for the books to get this good, but now that he’s reached the middle of his series, Butcher isn’t afraid to get all experimental and I’m totally loving every second of it.

Changes ended with Harry Dresden being gunned down by a mysterious assailant and sinking to his death in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. (I mean, what other way could he have ended a book that featured so many life-altering changes to Harry’s life, most of them bad? It seems obvious in retrospect.) Only, because this is fantasy, dying doesn’t really prevent us from following Harry to his next destination.

I’ve read books where characters momentarily die and visit the afterlife, but I’ve never read one where the narrator stays dead for any significant period of time, and I’ve certainly never heard of an established character in a long-running series doing something like this*. Of course, the novelty is a large part of the fun, but I also think Butcher does a really good job exploring the ramifications of Harry’s death not only for Harry, but for all his friends, family, and the city of Chicago as well. Harry has to navigate his new, er, lifestyle and the reactions of those he loves, all while mayhem — in typical Dresden Files fashion — threatens to break loose.

*That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before, just that I’m not aware of it if it has.

The book also ends with a couple of hopeful yet chilling twists that I won’t spoil, just in case you haven’t read it yet. But it’s good, trust me. I really don’t understand why people didn’t like this book — from what I understand on the internets, it was pretty controversial for some reason? I’m not seeing it. So what the hell. Five stars! (It’s probably more like 4.5, but I’m feeling generous, and the ending more than made up for any dragginess in the middle.)

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #58: Ghost Story by Peter Straub


Ghost Story is a novel so dense it took me years to make it from beginning to end. Over those years, I started, I paused, I stopped, I restarted. It wasn’t that the story didn’t grab me. The opening chapter made it so I had to read on to unravel the mystery it presented. Where Straub’s failure lies is with holding my interest.

His writing can be beautiful, at times verging on poetry. That, however, occasionally works against it, as the lines become so densely packed that it made the moving slow going. Whereas I would complete any other book of its length in a day or two, Ghost Story required me to take my time in order to fully immerse myself in its story.

A story that, strike two, is, sort of meandering. Based upon the title, you’d expect, well, a ghost story, and you do get one, but you’re going to have to wait a while to get there since Straub seems to prefer a much slower burn than one would normally expect. Atmosphere is his key focus, and he spends most of the novel adding to it.

Unfortunately, rather than this adding to the eventual payoff, it made it so I hardly cared by the time I reached it. The odd goings on at the beginning of the story hooked me, but I’d fallen off said hook by the time more came along. I guess I lack the patience necessary. And if you, like me, prefer more instant gratification in your books, I’d bet you probably do as well.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #33: The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

proxyPart of Hammer Horror’s new book series, where they get well-known novelists to write them horror novellas (though most seem to push the definition of novella, size-wise), this is a bone-rattling hair-curling good read from poet/crime novelist Hannah. It starts off with a total first world problem – the thoroughly upper-middle-class Louise has her bedtime disturbed by a noisy neighbour. Louise lives in Cambridge, in a million-pound Victorian  terrace house. Her slightly wet husband is planning home renovation – classic displacement act, apparently – while she is quietly bereft of her son, seven years old and at boarding school. The boarding school is part of the gilded trap she lives in. Everyone thinks it’s a wonderful opportunity for her son, Joseph, a talented singer now part of an elite choir, and he’s happy there. But Louise can’t stand not having him at home, and her frayed nerves are torn to shreds by the 80s soft rock anthems her neighbour inflicts on her during his weekend parties.

As someone who once came home from surgery, lay down on her bed, and was instantly woken by a builder playing bloody Coldplay metres from her head, my sympathies were with Louise. Her neighbour is a classic boor, a selfish stoner who mocks her when she asks him to turn it down, and during those scenes I was white knuckled with rage, not fear. Hannah is brilliant at this – winding you up with primal fears hidden in domestic settings. Her wry sense of humour shines through, especially in Louise’s assessment of her fellow choir parents and the patronising choirmaster. The drip, drip of micro-aggressions, lack of understanding from her duffer of a husband, and sleep deprivation drive her to desperation.

The second half of the story is where the spookiness ramps up. In the book’s afterword, the author says she set out to write a proper ghost story, and not leave the reader with an ambiguous ‘was it real or was it in her head?’ Turn of the Screw-style ending. I think she’s effective at that, though personally I think I enjoyed the first half’s depiction of suburban contentment falling to pieces more than the eerie second section. This probably says a lot about me. But it was a satisfying read, and carried off the first person narrator very well.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #12: The Winter Ghosts

A slowly paced ghost story; this one doesn’t have any scares, it goes for a different type of mood. I’m left slightly confused as to how I feel about it … 2.5 stars, I think. It takes place in France a decade after the Great War – I originally picked it up because I thought it was about the effects of World War I on the surviving generation and only later realized that it was actually a ghost story.