Screwing With Henry James

‘The Turn of the Key’ Cleverly Remixes the Master

Just in time for Labor Day comes The Turn of the Key, a creeptastic new book from Ruth Ware—author of The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs. Westaway—that you’ll definitely want to read on the beach, in broad daylight, preferably with a cold dose of liquid courage in hand. If you’re spending your long weekend in an isolated country house or the misty Scottish highlands, give The Turn of the Key a hard pass.

In this bold contemporary reboot of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Ware doesn’t so much turn the screw as remix it. She takes James’s young governess, troubled children, absentee parents, and sinister servants and transplants them to the twenty-first century, where, it turns out, they’re right at home. The governess is now a nanny, and technology haunts remote Heatherbrae House. The Victorian ruin has been fully renovated as a “smart” house, its lovingly restored period details bisected by a modern glass extension, “like a patient who looked well enough above their clothes but lift their shirt and you would find their wounds had been left unstitched, bleeding out.” If the heroine feels like she’s being watched or hearing voices, it’s because she definitely is; every room is equipped with surveillance cameras and voice-activated technology linked to “Happy,” an app that’s anything but.

Disgruntled daycare worker Rowan Caine’s new position—as the overcompensated live-in nanny to the four daughters of globe-trotting husband-and-wife architects—seems too good to be true, and it is. It’s no spoiler to say that one of the kids ends up dead; like James’s 1898 novella, the story is a “found” manuscript, recounted in flashbacks. The question that keeps the reader turning the pages in The Turn of the Key is: which kid? And how? Rowan is clearly an unreliable narrator, but is she a murderous one?

She’s certainly determined to ignore the kinds of red flags that sent the family’s previous nannies fleeing: creaking floorboards, eerie antique dolls, disappearing keys, a secret garden. “Having the bad luck to engage one nervous, superstitious employee seemed quite likely,” she muses. “Getting four in a row seemed . . . less so.” Nevertheless, Rowan insists: “I was not a superstitious person. And so the legends of the house didn’t bother me at all, in fact the whole idea of nannies and servants driven out by mysterious spooky happenings seemed more than a little ridiculous—almost Victorian.”

But as she navigates the transition from nursery to nannying, with all the intimacy and intensity that implies, Rowan experiences true horror in the form of the sleeplessness, messiness, occasional violence, and unending drudgery of round-the-clock childcare. “Being with the girls all day from sunup to sunset was exhausting in a completely different way to the nursery, a way I hadn’t fully anticipated or understood until now,” Rowan confesses. “It was the way it stretched, endlessly, the way the needing never stopped, and there was never a moment when you could hand them over to your colleague and run away for a quick fag break to just be yourself. I was never off duty here.”

The onslaught of mundane and seemingly supernatural evils is enough to drive anyone—the reader included—over the edge, but the true secret of Heatherbrae House’s staffing issues, when Ware reveals it, is at once timelessly banal and unexpectedly far-reaching. (There are echoes of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, an excellent true-Victorian-crime book.) While James famously left his ghost story ambiguous, Ware wraps everything up neatly, in the classic Gothic tradition. All the bumps in the night turn out to have perfectly logical, if disconcerting, explanations. But The Turn Of The Key will keep you guessing until the devastating last page. And it’s as haunting as anything James ever conjured up.

(Gallery/Scout Press, August 6, 2019)

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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