IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN
TIME FOR BAD BOOK COVERS
And today we’re going to look at Henry James’s 1898 maybe-ghost story novella, The Turn of the Screw.
This post was inspired by a single cover, sent to me by a friend:
BEHOLD ITS GLORY
The best part is that it’s not even a screw, it’s a nut.
A fucking nut.
Okay, but seriously, after hyperventilating for about five minutes, I slowly got depressed, because I realized that there will never be another cover–certainly not for this book, and possibly not for my entire “Bad Book Covers” series–that could ever beat this one.
But, hey ho, let’s carry on anyway.
Quick Summary of the Novella
For those of you who don’t know The Turn of the Screw, it’s a great, sinister read and can be found online here. It’s an awful lot like Heart of Darkness, in that it deals with barriers breaking down at the turn of the century, you can sense the impending literary shift to Modernism, and it can sometimes be a very confusing read due to its feverish, slightly experimental tone.
The story is about an unnamed governess–who may or may not be bat-shit bug-fuck nuts–who is hired to watch two children, Miles and Flora–who may or may not be FUCKING CONDUITS FOR THE GHOSTS OF THEIR TWO DEAD SERVANTS–in an isolated family house in the country.
The governess is hired by Flora and Miles’s uncle and guardian, who lives in London far away from the kids and wants nothing to do with them. He gets all Miranda Priestly on her and tells her to do her damn job and don’t bother him with, like, literally anything, ever.
With Hyper-Gothic Isolation™ achieved, the governess starts being super creeped out by the kids she’s watching. The boy, Miles, has been expelled from school for . . . something. They don’t tell us what, but it’s kind of implied that it’s something sexual. With a boy. Or something. Miles about 8-10 years old, which will be important later.
Then the governess starts seeing a random woman, and sometimes a random dude, hanging around the place. It’s super eerie, because no one else ever sees them, except maybe the Spooky Kids™, but she’s not sure, because the Spooky Kids™ are really vague about it.
She then hears from the housekeeper that the old governess, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, have both DIED recently, and also they had ILLICIT SEX, and also also they spent an uncomfortable amount of time around the children, so maybe the super young Miles learned his maybe-sex behavior from the once-alive Sex Ghosts, or maybe they’re still doing sex stuff from beyond the grave, or maybe the governess is just imagining things, but it’s getting all kinds of Turn of the Century Psychological™ up in hurr.
The governess tries to get Flora the goddamned hell out of that place and sends her off, but the governess ends up staying at the house with Miles, for some reason (he’s not as worth protecting? I don’t remember). One night, they get into discussing ghosts and expulsions and generally creepy things, and then the governess sees the ghost of Peter Quint at the window! Oh no! She attempts to shield Miles from the ghost and tells Miles that the ghost has no power over him any more.
When the ghost disappears, she looks down and discovers that Miles is dead in her arms. THE END.
1.) She is MAAAAAAAD, and strangled Miles in one of her own fits of fancy; OR
2.) There really were ghosts, and the kids were to an uncertain degree being tormented/controlled by and/or aiding the ghosts, and Miles was some sort of collateral damage in the governess’s spiritual fight with Peter Quint; OR
3.) The kids orchestrated all of it, because they’re dealing with the psychological issues of perhaps being sexually abused by their former servants; OR
4.) This is all some kind of hilarious misunderstanding, and boy, oh boy, is the governess’s face going to be red when her employer comes down from London to see what all the ruckus is about!
Previous posts in this series include: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Moonstone, Dracula, East Lynne, Lady Audley’s Secret, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Scarlet Letter, Frankenstein, A Christmas Carol, Little Women, Jekyll and Hyde, Pamela, Ivanhoe, Anne of Green Gables, and Vanity Fair.
1.) These are all professional book covers instead of fan or amateur artwork (or at least I hope so). I’m more than happy to pick on marketing boards who thought these were good ideas, but I don’t want to pick on fans trying to express their love of books. If a fan cover made it in to this collection, then I’m very sorry and you are clearly a good enough artist to make me assume it was professionally done.
2.) I’m ridiculing the covers, not the book itself.
3.) I’m going to swear. A lot. If this isn’t your thing, then don’t read it.
On to the covers!
Let’s show this old favorite one more time, for the cheap seats in the back.
Okay, right, I’m done. I swear.
One of my friends was (jokingly) trying to make the argument that this is a decent cover, because it portrays a nut–the governess–caught between two horrible forces.
I like the way she thinks, mostly because it means that I can show this picture again and again and again!
Let’s start with some Good Covers, shall we?
Eyes are always good, especially in texts where perspective and reliability are so thematically important. The second cover might be a bit overloaded (multiple pair of eyes, spooky faceless children, backwards Rs to indicate a lack of order, the blooming waterlilies which, as we know from Tennyson, indicates a woman’s fragile mind during a sexual awakening), but it’s still solid.
Love this one. The two shadowy ghosts overlooking the domestic space they’re about to torment (undoing the traditional male/female relationship inside a home with children), with the children’s toys giving a subtle sense of destruction.
Not the best cover in the world, but I appreciate how murky it is. Additionally, it all comes down to perspective. There is nothing objectively sinister about this cover–it could easily be a lovely evening out on a boat–unless you decide to see it as sinister.
Ditto for this one. These could either be a photograph of perfectly normal children, taken in a distracted moment, or a photograph of disturbed children who are maybe too close for comfort.
What I really like about this one is that the governess is the creepiest figure of all, and their shadows are deeply distorted.
Okay, on to the bad covers, which is why y’all come to me. I know what you want. I know what you need.
The first pattern I found was Creepy Doll Heads. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these, but they’re a bit on the nose for my taste.
Plus, I can’t hear anything else but “Creepy Doll” by Jonathan Coulton.
There’s another very common trope called Women Holding Candles
She’s the sort of slasher-flick gal who wanders around a dark house alone, saying “Is anyone there?” 500 times.
Uhhhhh, governess? Did you do your hair, grab the fanciest candelabrum, and wear your best negligee for ghost hunting?
You did, didn’t you, you kinky, weird bitch.
Lynn? You’re in a wealthy home. You can afford a candlestick. You don’t need to fight ghosts with hot wax dripping on you.
Unless . . . that’s the point? Oh, sweet Jesus, this is Turn of the Screw. EVERYTHING has the potential to be a sex game.
I’m trying to make some sort of “Peter Quint is a priest?” joke, but then I remember the subtext with Miles, and I’m not going to touch this one with a twelve-foot pole.
“EVERY MOMENT I LIVE IS AGONY. PLEASE PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY, SARAH JESSICA PARKER.”
Then, of course, we have Spooky Children Are Spooky, and Children, which is another staple of good horror.
don’t mention that Miles looks like one of the Trump children
don’t mention it
it’s too easy
What are they all looking at?
It’s too late to close my browser, they’ve already seen into my soul.
Normal fucking day for rich Victorian kids, let’s be real.
We can’t forget the category that gets the Tone Completely Wrong.
“I’m so fucking bored. I could actually shit on the floor, that’s how bored I am. It would give me something to think about. Shitting on the floor. I’m going to do it right now, Peter Quint. See how much you like haunting people when they’re shitting, you dull-ass mother fucker.”
I . . . almost like this one? Because the woman has no reflection, which is cool? But it also looks like they’re about to start singing while they go through a magical portal to the fairy kingdom? So . . . no?
Penguin, you’re better than this. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
“Awwww, did the big bad ghostie-wosties tire little Flora out?”
(also, they’re dressed like it’s the 1860s)
(also also, that kid’s clashing outfit hurts like a hangover)
Yes, this is the governess’s problem: plucky, impish children who make faces behind her back.
This one got me thinking: do you reckon Mary Poppins and Bert were actually Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? There’s no doubt that they were banging, and also that they gave those kids some emotional distress.
Yeah, let’s go with that.
Bert’s gonna get you when your sleeping, kids. Beware Bert. He sings in a minor key. I don’t know how we never noticed how evil he is before now.
This cover was designed by someone who has never set foot in a Victorian home before. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this story would be equally scary if it were set in this Florentine monastery, but guys.
Okay, this cover might actually be the most sinister of them all, largely because the woman in the background is paying NO ATTENTION to the happy-squeaky-fun color saturation everywhere else.
Ghosts don’t give a single shit if they’re fucking up the only sunny day Britain has seen in 5 months. Not a single shit.
Ahhh, at last we have my favorite category: What the Actual?
Is there a sub-plot I did not notice in which the governess is an honest-to-god mermaid?
To be fair, this book is dense for its size. I could have easily missed that sub-plot.
Are those coffee beans?
Peas in pods?
They’re shittily drawn eyes
WE CAN’T SEE YOU
WE CAN’T SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING
INCREASE YOUR LIGHTING DEPARTMENT’S BUDGET
Dude, sex parties in the ’80s were weird.
That’s all from me today! Some more upcoming posts include The Count of Monte Cristo, The Jungle Book, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, but other suggestions are very welcome.