I’ve tried, but I just can’t enjoy Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. My main problem’s with the excessively tangled prose style (I much prefer something like his Daisy Miller), but one of my minor quibbles is with the title. It just doesn’t seem all that appropriate. Yes, I know the reason for the title’s explained in the first few pages, where someone suggests that adding children to a ghost story would increase the stakes and suspense: the child gives, in effect, another excruciating turn of the screw.
Except the story then proceeds to feature children from the outset. It starts off with the screw already turned, the suspense already enhanced. I feel that a story with the title The Turn of the Screw should feature the screw actually turning in the course of the story, acting as something more than just a metacommentary on the genre.
For the kind of ‘turn of the screw’ I’m after, this is one of the best examples I can think of. Aronovitz’s style is decidedly nothing like Henry James, instead closer to Stephen King’s in his use of intense detail and low-key, inexorably building tension. I’ll be spoiling the twist that comes halfway through the story, but only to show why I think it’s so successful.
There’s a toll booth on a secluded off-ramp. When it was first built several toll collectors tried to work the graveyard shift. None could last long. When night came they would feel faint, their hearts would palpitate, visions would pass before their eyes, as if they were stricken with anemia only as long as they worked in that booth. After several collectors came and went James took the job, and for his whole life he’s worked in that booth. Every day he eats artery-hardening breakfasts and takes blood supplements so that although the anemia strikes him, he’s able to endure it.
But why? The rest of the story takes place in the past, when the toll booth wasn’t yet built and the off-ramp was still a gravelly construction site. James is now Jimmy, a young teenage boy from a relatively strict household, and his new best friend is the bad-boy of school, Kyle. Kyle teaches him how to smoke and swear and do petty acts of vandalism. One day Kyle leads him too far.
I won’t say what they do, but rest of the narrative is about dealing with the consequences. Another descriptive phrase that fits this story well is ‘digging yourself deeper’. No matter when you think it’s as bad as it’s going to get, there’s something else that needs to be done. Still, by the end of the first half Jimmy feels pretty confident that the evidence has been hidden and they’re going to get away with it after all.
Except Jimmy is covered in blood, and little of it is his own. There’s nowhere he can go to wash it off. It’s impossible to sneak into Jimmy’s house without his mother noticing, and she would easily get the truth out of him. All options are methodically eliminated. There seems to be no way around this until Kyle suggests that they could get close enough to Jimmy’s backyard, where his dog is tied up.
“That’s when we can grab the dog, Jimmy. That’s when we can bring her back here and do what we have to do. If it looks like a roadkill there ain’t a parent alive that would question the blood on you. The story is easy. We were out having a dirt fight with the shovels. That’s the cause of the blisters. But then we stopped when you realized how late it must have gotten. Feeling all guilty, you ran back and snagged Lucy, because you knew it was time to walk her. But she ran away and got hit by a car up on the overpass. It knocked her into the muddy ditch under the guardrail and you had to crawl in and get her. There’s the dirt and the blood in a nutshell. And I know you’ll be bawling when you bring her back to the house. It’s perfect. You’ve always been a crybaby and your little tears are going to be just as real as the blood your ma will think came out of your mutt.”
And even though Jimmy loves his dog, he can’t think of anything else he can possibly do. Now that’s a gutwrenching turn of the screw.
Toll Booth by Michael Aronovitz
Word count: 30,000
First published: Seven Deadly Pleasures, collection, 2009, Hippocampus Press