Tuesday, July 13, 2021

“Poe Turns the Screw” • by Jason Wittman


The esteemed Mr. Bethke informs me that someone requested an expansion of my response to his “Why do you write?” post, in which I described how watching the (very bad) 2020 movie The Turning inspired me to write a story called “Poe Turns the Screw.” Specifically, he requested, “a blog post that is part review of The Turning, and then goes into the Edgar Allan Poe take on The Turn of the Screw and then goes into [your] writing process.”

To be clear, it wasn’t the reasons the movie was bad that inspired me to write the story, merely the fact that it was bad, so I don’t think a review of The Turning is strictly necessary.  But a request is a request.

I’ve been obsessed with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (about a young governess who defends two children named Miles and Flora from a pair of ghosts who might or might not actually be there) ever since seeing a comic book version of it in my middle school library. (Aspergians like myself tend to have such obsessions.)  I have DVDs of all but one film adaptation of the story, including The Innocents (1961), starring the late, great Deborah Kerr, widely considered to be the best. So when I heard The Turning was coming out in early 2020, I naturally wanted to see it.

It’s...bad. But the tragedy is that it could have been decent if not for the ending. (Spoilers ahead, obviously.) In the climax, after Peter Quint pushes the housekeeper Mrs. Grose over the railing (yes, this movie has railing kills), Kate (the governess) grabs the two kids, puts them in her car (this movie updates the story to 1994) and drives away. And as the car hurtles down the road... the camera zooms back... and it turns out we’re seeing a painting Kate got in the mail from her mentally ill mother. Mrs. Grose turns out to be still alive, and the kids turn out to be fine. But Kate... well, the camera zooms into her eye, through which we see her in the mental asylum where she last saw her mother. There’s her mother, drawing pictures on the floor. Kate looks at her...and screams. The End.

What makes this ending especially bad is that it contradicts what went before it. For instance, at 22:47 into the movie (yes, I bought the DVD because I wanted to see the alternate ending, which is the ending they should have gone with), a creepy mannequin moves on its own when nobody is in the room. At 34:39, Peter Quint is visible in the background. Kate is in the room, but she doesn’t see Quint, doesn’t realize he’s there. And at 1:12:37, Kate is standing at the bathroom sink. She bends down to wash her face...and the ghost of Miss Jessel (the previous governess) appears in the mirror. But she’s gone by the time Kate looks back up. Again, Kate has no idea she’s there.

So all this would indicate that the ghosts exist independent of Kate’s perception of them, right?  Well, not according to the ending.

The badness of that ending bounced around in my head long after I left the theater. As a writer, I find it boggling that such bad writing gets green-lit to be made into a major motion picture. (Although, since the alternate ending was much better, I have to think Executive Meddling was heavily involved.) And that thought kept bouncing around like a neutron in a nuclear reactor... and then my eyes rested on a novel on my bookshelf, Florence & Giles, by John Harding. It has a review blurb on the cover: “Imagine The Turn of the Screw reworked by Edgar Allan Poe” -- The Times.

For the record, I disagree with the blurb. Florence & Giles is a brilliant novel, I highly recommend it, and it’s definitely influenced by The Turn of the Screw, but I don’t see Poe in it at all. (And I know my Poe. I can recite “The Raven” from memory. Another Aspergian obsession.) But when I saw that blurb, it combined in my head with the badness of The Turning... and like THAT, an entire story materialized, all but fully formed in my head, in which various elements of Poe stories were grafted onto the basic plot of The Turn of the Screw

The beginning premise is from Henry James: a young governess is hired to look after two children at a remote country estate. But instead of Miles and Flora, the children are named Roderick and Madeleine Usher, and they are being kept at the Usher estate to protect them from the Red Death, a plague that is sweeping the countryside.

(Also for the record: I started this story long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. The pandemic did not influence my story in any way.)

The governess, unnamed in The Turn of the Screw, is here named Miss Prospera, after Prince Prospero in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”  The children’s late parents (who play a much larger role in my story) are named Montresor and Fortunata—and if you’ve read “The Cask of Amontillado,” you can guess how that marriage ends. The female ghost is named Miss Morella, who plays a larger nemesis to the governess in my story than the male ghost, who is named... But why spoil the story?

Normally, when I write, I manage to churn out three handwritten pages a day. (That’s right, I do my rough drafts in longhand. Cursive. You might think I do that so people born in this century won’t be able to read it, but no. Ideas just flow better for me from the tip of a pen.) But this story was a gusher, more like five or six pages a day. And when it was done, I had an 11,000+ word story. Then I typed it up on my computer, and let it sit on my hard drive for a few weeks while I went back to the novel I was writing. Then I looked at it again with fresh eyes, trimmed off some excess wordage, and started sending it off to magazine editors.

You know, when you think about it, it’s kind of weird that I’ve been asked to write what amounts to a making-of documentary about a story that has yet to see publication, penned by an author who is not exactly a household name—heck, Jim Theis is more famous than me. But I suppose this post could also be viewed as a sales pitch. Magazine editors take note!

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Jason D. Wittman lives and works in Minnesota. He has had fiction published in Scifi.com and Baen’s Universe, as well as in Stupefying Stories. He has also had two games published by Steve Jackson Games. 


In a world...

Where the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works (sometimes), and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton—

The last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is called out of retirement, because it seems dragons aren’t extinct after all and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Read the rest in THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY, by Jason D. Wittman, just one of the terrific tales in STUPEFYING STORIES 22!

Available now in paperback, on Kindle, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.



Pete Wood said...

So the movie had a railing death and a ghost in the bathroom mirror too? Bad movie 101. You can't clarify if the ghosts are real or not. That misses the entire point of the book.
I love the Innocents. Definitely my favorite version.
After the sublime adaptation of the Haunting of Hill House, I was underwhelmed by its sequel on Netflix, the Haunting of Bly Manor. Just boring and padded. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

Jason D. Wittman said...

I won't argue your point Mr. Wood. I'm just saying the ending made the movie even worse by contradicting what went before. It's like the director said at one point, "You know what, forget everything I just told you, the nanny's insane, The End."

To be fair, this isn't the first film adaptation of ToTS to come down on one side or the other on the ghost-are-real/not-real issue. In the 2007 version starring Leelee Sobieski, she is obviously off the deep end from the get-go. And in the 1973 version starring Lynn Redgrave, the ghosts are demonstrably real.