Sunday, January 11, 2015

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013): A quick look around the Internet shows how wildly divisive John Boyne's ghost story is, whether the reviewers are the denizens of Goodreads or singer Josh Ritter in the New York Times (seriously). I enjoyed the novel. Is it great? No. Was I entertained? Yes.

For all the novel's other influences, many of which it wears on its sleeve or perhaps even on its chest like sponsor logos on a NASCAR driver's chest, This House is Haunted really comes down to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. This novel is almost programmatically the anti-matter opposite of James' famous (and famously ambivalent) ghost story. Boyne's set-up is very similar: a governess, two children (a girl and a boy), an absent guardian, and two ghosts.

How does it reverse James? Rather than a first-person narration nested inside a frame narration some fifty years after the events of the story, we instead get a first-person narrator still somehow in the thick of things. The girl is the older child, and the one most in peril from at least one spectral presence. The female ghost is the most dangerous one. The male ghost is benevolent. There's no coyness about whether or not a haunting is involved: from the title to the first overtly spectral act, there really is no doubt. This house really is haunted. Really, really haunted.

The choice of title -- a simple declarative sentence -- offers one of the interesting counterpoints to James' novella. James' chosen title has to be explained by the story itself for its true meaning to be understood. The screw that's being turned is the screw of suspenseful narrative, as discussed around a fireplace near the beginning of a novella. A ghost story with a child in peril represents an extra turn of the screw from a ghost story without an imperiled child. It's a title that springs from a discussion of narrative theory. Contrast this to 'This house is haunted.'

Further mirrored images proliferate. Certain signs and portents and bits of ghostly business dead-end, in opposition to the architectural tidiness of James' novella. The prose is mostly plain style, not Jamesian. While both the character and the works of Charles Dickens play a role in the novel, the prose is not "Dickensian," as some reviewers oddly claim.

What do you get? A fairly short ghost story set in 1867 England (London and Norfolk, to be exact), with a plucky governess, endangered children, family secrets, angry animals, and a lot of very physical ghost business. While The Turn of the Screw seems to be the primary mirror, the secondary homages and allusions are legion: Rebecca; Jane Eyre; A Christmas Carol; "The Fall of the House of Usher;" and The Uninvited are just a few. 

Moreover, This House is Haunted counters more than a century of somewhat misogynistic theorizing about the governess in The Turn of the Screw. Critics who claim that the ghosts in James' story are the products of the governess' mind have generally done so while claiming that this derangement is a sort of hallucination caused by sexual frustration linked to the governess' crush on the absent guardian of her two charges. This is both pretty sexist and psychologically loopy: scientifically speaking, people don't generally suffer from full-blown audio and visual hallucinations simply because they need to get laid.

Boyne's protagonist instead consciously and vocally fights against Victorian-era sexism at every turn. And a scene in which an unhelpful Anglican minister suggests to an enraged Eliza Caine that the ghosts are simply the product of the weak female mind strikes me as being a very direct rebuke to The Turn of the Screw's misogynistic interpreters.

Are there problems? A few. Anachronisms occasionally pop up in the language of the narrator. The loose ends may irritate readers who want everything in a story to be a version of Chekov's Gun. And the climax seems about 50% too cinematic, not so much a nod to "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a superhero battle between two invisible adversaries. The ghosts are almost absurdly powerful, though I do think that's part of the Mirror: Henry James' ghosts were almost entirely non-physical in their malign effects. For me, in any case, recommended with a few caveats. But I'll be damned if I understand how this novel made so many people so bloody angry.

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