Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Turn of the Screw: The face in the window

After a long hiatus, I'm back to channeling Henry James as our latest fiction-writing guru. Specifically I'm working my way through The Turn of the Screw and finding all manner of techniques we can borrow. I have a special interest in methods for making one's fiction more disturbing, and Turn is a real clinic. Man, it's good. It's been ages since I read it, and I didn't remember how good it is.

Now then. The "shadowy apparition" is as old as the hills in storytelling. It's the thing almost seen, but not quite; the ghost; the literal or figurative haunting by memory. In thrillers it's the killer, stalking his prey in a darkened corridor. It's death itself, which we know is out there waiting for us, and but which we will never truly know (because once we do, you know, it's too late). It's Moby-Dick. In other words, in the words of our former Secretary of Defense, it's the known unknown. And you could make a case that it's the generative force behind pretty much all art: grasping at that thing we know we can never can grasp, as a means to try to overcome it.

But before I go any further, let me share with you my very favorite "shadowy apparition" tale of all time, from my very favorite show of all time. Those of you who've read my novel (hello, you five!) will see this as a direct antecedent for my work.

But suppose you don't have a video camera, a raccoon mask, or a brother willing to make an ass of himself on television? Suppose you just want to render a face in the window in prose? Well, you could do worse than study James.

The narrator first sees the apparition when she's strolling the grounds of the mansion at dusk:

It was plump, one afternoon, in the middle of my very hour: the children were tucked away, and I had come out for my stroll. One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that—I only asked that he should KNOW; and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face. That was exactly present to me—by which I mean the face was—when, on the first of these occasions, at the end of a long June day, I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantations and coming into view of the house. What arrested me on the spot—and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for—was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there!—but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower to which, on that first morning, little Flora had conducted me. This tower was one of a pair—square, incongruous, crenelated structures—that were distinguished, for some reason, though I could see little difference, as the new and the old. They flanked opposite ends of the house and were probably architectural absurdities, redeemed in a measure indeed by not being wholly disengaged nor of a height too pretentious, dating, in their gingerbread antiquity, from a romantic revival that was already a respectable past. I admired them, had fancies about them, for we could all profit in a degree, especially when they loomed through the dusk, by the grandeur of their actual battlements; yet it was not at such an elevation that the figure I had so often invoked seemed most in place.

It produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were, sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was—a few more seconds assured me—as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind. I had not seen it in Harley Street—I had not seen it anywhere. The place, moreover, in the strangest way in the world, had, on the instant, and by the very fact of its appearance, become a solitude. To me at least, making my statement here with a deliberation with which I have never made it, the whole feeling of the moment returns. It was as if, while I took in—what I did take in—all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death. I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly hour lost, for the minute, all its voice. But there was no other change in nature, unless indeed it were a change that I saw with a stranger sharpness. The gold was still in the sky, the clearness in the air, and the man who looked at me over the battlements was as definite as a picture in a frame. That's how I thought, with extraordinary quickness, of each person that he might have been and that he was not. We were confronted across our distance quite long enough for me to ask myself with intensity who then he was and to feel, as an effect of my inability to say, a wonder that in a few instants more became intense.

There are a couple of techniques that make this passage extremely spooky. First, I think, is the fact that the apparition seems to arise from the governess's own imagination. Evidently a fan of romance novels, she is secretly wishing to encounter a charming stranger on the path. And then he does appear--although we know that in this story, "charm" is a double-edged quality. Through this sudden transformation of fantasy to reality, James ties the apparition strongly to the governess herself. She has an immediate stake in--and a kind of responsibility for--his identity. He's not just a guy who shows up, surprising as that would be; he's connected with the governess's own imagination somehow, but also separate from it.

Second there's the explicit connection of the presence with death, along with the governess's sudden sense of extreme solitude, which is probably the most frightening thing about death.

And third, there's the governess's attention to the passage of time:

The great question, or one of these, is, afterward, I know, with regard to certain matters, the question of how long they have lasted. Well, this matter of mine, think what you will of it, lasted while I caught at a dozen possibilities, none of which made a difference for the better, that I could see, in there having been in the house—and for how long, above all?—a person of whom I was in ignorance. It lasted while I just bridled a little with the sense that my office demanded that there should be no such ignorance and no such person. It lasted while this visitant, at all events—and there was a touch of the strange freedom, as I remember, in the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat—seemed to fix me, from his position, with just the question, just the scrutiny through the fading light, that his own presence provoked. We were too far apart to call to each other, but there was a moment at which, at shorter range, some challenge between us, breaking the hush, would have been the right result of our straight mutual stare. He was in one of the angles, the one away from the house, very erect, as it struck me, and with both hands on the ledge. So I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page; then, exactly, after a minute, as if to add to the spectacle, he slowly changed his place—passed, looking at me hard all the while, to the opposite corner of the platform. Yes, I had the sharpest sense that during this transit he never took his eyes from me, and I can see at this moment the way his hand, as he went, passed from one of the crenelations to the next. He stopped at the other corner, but less long, and even as he turned away still markedly fixed me. He turned away; that was all I knew.

The governess seems to realize that accurately depicting how long this episode lasted is somehow key to making it believable--to making it real. She has no conventional way of measuring the time, and that would make the episode too pedestrian, anyway; it has to take place both inside and outside of conventional time. So--and I think this is quite amazing--she uses thoughts as a measure of time. The "visitant" (such a great word) was there for as long as it took me to think x, y, and z--and for as long as it seemed to take him to wonder about me. Once he starts moving we get an additional measure of time, which is very specific. From her careful description of the architecture, we have a very strong sense of exactly how far he's moving, and how fast--by the way he places his hand on each of the crenelations. That lets us almost calculate (t = d/s) how long the governess saw him.

Furthermore, because the sense of time is so psychologically precise here, I have the distinct impression that the time of the visitation is exactly equal to how long it takes to read these passages about it. Which connects the apparition very strongly to our own imaginations, not just the governess's.

So the lesson from James for this week is: make time palpable, especially when you are portraying something from outside the normal rhythms of life. On those occasions the reader should feel those rhythms--and the disruption of them--all the more.

Anyway, the man will later literally reappear in a window, which is what gave me the final permission I needed to post the Strange Universe video. But I will stop here for now.

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