Monday, March 07, 2011

The anatomy of fear

Sorry, couldn't resist that title. In fact this is another overdue post about The Turn of the Screw. But it's exciting! Both anatomical and fearsome, in a good way!

All right, for those of you who haven't clicked away...

Continuing my thought from Friday, about trying to learn the craft of fiction on the sentence level. I've written before about the advantages (which may not be readily apparent) of writing what appears to be a ghost story in a highly complex, nuanced style. Obviously this style isn't for everybody, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to suit James's purpose. I believe that purpose is not only to tell a damn scary story, but to understand fear as profoundly as possible.

Contrary to what we might assume, James shows us that fear is not a simple emotion. Unless the werewolf is literally leaping at your throat at this very moment (and even then, I might suggest), fear is a layered and contradictory experience. Especially when the nature of the menace is not yet clear, the experience of growing fear is a nuanced one. It is not just a series of bigger and bigger jolts. Fear waxes and wanes; at times you might try to go through your ordinary routines, aware as you are that they have been knocked off kilter. You clutch with overwrought relief at false hopes. You get irritated. You might even laugh at yourself as you step back and watch yourself scurrying through those musty corridors with your guttering flashlight. How did I let it come to this?, you say to yourself.

Anyway, let's take a look at one of those finely-wrought Jamesian sentences. This one refers to the governess's attempts at conversations with the children in her charge, now that all are aware of the spectral "visitants" who have come to the children on several occasions. The governess has just described the "small ironic consciousness" of the children--their awareness that she knows something is going on, but is unable to ask them about it directly. The children, she tells us, are not so "vulgar" as to taunt her with this knowledge. Rather,

It was as if, at moments, we were perpetually coming into sight of subjects before which we must stop short, turning suddenly out of alleys that we perceived to be blind, closing with a little bang that made us look at each other—for, like all bangs, it was something louder than we had intended—the doors we had indiscreetly opened.

First off, the sentence mirrors the physical events in the story. The governess has been "perpetually coming into sight of subjects" that stop her short--the apparitions. She turns out of alleys and peers through doors, and gets caught looking. The sentence is a kind of mini suspense tale, giving us the "little bang" that disrupts the sentence's flow, somewhat violently, with dashes, before finally revealing what caused the bang--the doors. The events and the fear they cause seep into the very language--the words and the syntax--the governess uses to try to understand the events. Even in retrospect, she can't think outside of the fear.

But what's also touching here is the repetition of "we," and "us," the implication that she and the children are on the same side in this predicament. Together, they encounter subjects and stop short; together they "indiscreetly" open doors and startle when they slam. They have the same motives, and share the same surprise and disappointment when their adventures go awry. Glossed over is the fact that the children are hiding something from the governess. She loves them and fiercely wants to protect them. She can't quite bring herself to think that they may have an agenda quite different from hers.

The "we" also conveys something else. The children are--at least--the governess's equals in this game. She cannot out-think them, any more than she can get them to obey her in any but the most trivial matters.

The sentence contains a kernel of simple, unthinking fear: the jolt when the door bangs louder than expected. But rippling out from that are all the shadings that make fear so difficult to understand and overcome: There's love and the desire to be loved back (the fear of not being loved back, perhaps). There's propriety in social relations, especially with children for whom one is responsible. There's denial--this isn't really happening, not really--pitted against the equally strong will to understand. All these emotions are happening at once, and all are part of the supposedly simple experience of "being afraid."

So as we write our own scary stories, we might spend some time unraveling all the emotional threads that make up fear...the kind of fear worthy of literature. Give fear its due by placing the shaded, qualified sentence alongside the gut-wrenching shriek.

Possibly such complications are also worth considering as we face fear in our daily lives--or accuse others of being fearful.

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