House Parties: The Role of Setting in White is for Witching and The Turn of the Screw
Both White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James are Gothic tales that share some traits in common with supernatural superstitions that remain popular today—ghosts, legends, and, of course, haunted houses. Rather than heavily featuring the genre’s most frequent instruments of evil, like men with knives and anonymous poisoners, Oyeyemi and James both use the houses in which their books are set to control the story. In this way, each author orchestrates a particular interpretation of horror.
Henry James’ story, featuring the psychological creepiness of a governess and her two young charges, takes place at the expansive English country manor of Bly. The estate seems nice enough at first, remembered as a “broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and a pair of maids looking out…the lawn and the bright flowers and the crunch of my wheels on the gravel and the clustered treetops over which the rooks circled and cawed in the golden sky” (James 7). However, Bly is further from blissful than it seems. The old mansion, in its medieval resplendence, looms over its small residents both with its imposing walls and its heavy air. The narrator describes,
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…. (James 15).
In fact, Bly is nothing short of an exemplar of Gothic architecture. Constructed so long ago that the newer of its two towers appears just as ancient as the older, Bly is a monument to the distance that time creates and the balefulness of idle stone. At first, its “gingerbread antiquity” distracts the observer from its subtle iniquity. And certainly Sigmund Freud would remark on a particular aspect of this evil—that aspect which inspires the governess, a newly hired young woman to reflect at such great length on the erection and long-lasting nature of these massive towers.
Younger than Bly, although no less ominous, is the house at 29 Barton Road in White is for Witching. The status of Barton Road as a character in this book is much more open than that of Bly; in fact, it narrates part of the neo-Gothic epic. One character describes Barton Road in geometric and anthropomorphic terms:
Our new house had two big brown grids of windows with a row of brick in between each grid. No windows for the attic. From the outside the windows didn’t look as if they could be opened, they didn’t look as if they were there to let air or light in, they were funny square eyes, friendly, tired. (Oyeyemi 17).
Just as the governess’s first impression of Bly is favorable, this initial presentation of the house at 29 Barton Road belies the building’s tragic legacy and malefic capacity. Although his description personifies the windows of his home, this character does not reveal the actual personality and true demeanor of the whole house.
Such an introduction, however, is left to the building itself: “I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read—I tell you where you are. Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look” (Oyeyemi 86). 29 Barton Road is omnipresent and omniscient, and it is terrifyingly intelligent. It sees and controls everything within its walls, taking the place of more literal ghosts. Its mischief is observed in the lines, “…chairs are moved in the house. You leave a room and when you return the chair is scraped back from the table. Doors you leave closed are opened behind your back” (Oyeyemi 282). The house is not simply having fun tormenting its occupants. In fact, it does not repress its frequently ill temper, which is heightened whenever its doors are opened to foreigners. When a Nigerian housekeeper is hired, the English house anonymously assails her in both of their languages: “Everything you have I will turn against you. I’ll turn sugar bitter for you. I’ll take your very shield and crack it on your head. White is for witching, so ti gbo?” (Oyeyemi 201). 29 Barton Road is far too intelligent to dislike foreigners like the housekeeper due to a failure to understand them—after all, it speaks Yoruba—but it certainly does hate them. After all, black is not for witching.
While the ascendancy of Barton Road is avoided for some time while the two protagonists are away at university and in travels, the dominance of Bly is exercised in a very literal manner: its occupants cannot leave. In one scene, it overcomes the narrator, preventing her from going to church and chipping away at her sanity. She recounts:
Tormented, in the hall, with difficulties and obstacles, I remember sinking down at the foot of the staircase—suddenly collapsing there on the lowest step and then, with a revulsion, recalling that it was exactly where more than a month before, in the darkness of night and just so bowed with evil things, I had seen the specter…. (James 57).
The tortured governess is a plaything of the dark forces at large in Bly. Her attempt to escape to a holy building is punished with psychological anguish, physical collapse, and a haunting recollection. Bly is doubtless a malicious entity, so perfect a Gothic setting that no villain is even necessary to complete its horror. Even an angelic young boy, heir to the residence and elder of the orphaned children that live at Bly, is corrupted by his experience at the house. His sympathetic teacher observes him, noting, “The frames and squares of the great window were a kind of image, for him, of a kind of failure. I felt that I saw him, at any rate, shut in or shut out….Wasn’t he looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn’t see?” (James 81). In this passage, it is clear that it is not other characters pressing a great weight on the little boy’s soul, but that the true demonic presence is in the estate. The cherubic outlook that would better befit a boy of his character is tarnished by the very glass through which he is condemned to view the outside world—and as if the above lines did not clarify this enough, a look through the “haunted pane” is the child’s last glance before succumbing to death.
It is difficult to decide which of the two houses would make a more unpleasant vacation. Bly is an immoral killer and infested with ghosts, while 29 Barton Road is sentient, cruel, and rather racist. A young woman writes, “I was conscious of a mortal coldness and felt as if I should never again be warm,” after a few minutes alone at the country manor (James 72). But inside the walls of the Dover household, one can never be alone at all. In both The Turn of the Screw and White is for Witching, the authors employ the setting to carry out several villains’ worth of wickedness, and each is a masterwork of Gothic fiction in its own right.
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