Book Review: Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly


Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton Books, 1994. Originally published 1994. 28 pages. Gothic tale.

★★

Few people will argue with me when I state that Joyce Carol Oates is a talented author, who has proved herself more than capable of writing stories that positively shines with originality.

Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly, however, is no such story, and neither was it designed to be.

Instead, it is a paraphrasing of the century-old The Turn of the Screw, and this is important to keep in mind as you first delve into the book.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the original story is the ambiguity found within the text. Is the mansion really haunted or has the governess merely gone mad? Is she an unreliable narrator, or is she, in fact, the only character whom we can actually trust?

Joyce Carol Oates attempts to answer this question in a short story that puts very little focus on the protagonist of the original tale.

Instead, the story is told from the perspective of the two ghosts, efficiently killing off whatever doubt we had whether or not they actually exist.

This admittedly rather strange tale shows a side of The Turn of the Screw that we were not otherwise introduced to, as we dive into the tragic story of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Together with Oates, we follow them beyond life and far into death, where Miss Jessel becomes obsessed with the loss of her former ward Flora, as well as with the new governess of the House of Bly.

Paraphrasing a well-known story is no new concept, but it can, however, be difficult to successfully built upon a classic without tainting a beloved story in the process. The novels Scarlett and Wide Sargasso Sea are testaments to this.

Any author attempting this needs to keep in mind that they are building upon a story that has essentially already been told. They need to stay respectful of the author’s work, as well as of the author’s intentions with the story, or their attempts are most likely going to seem like nothing more than fancifully written fanfiction.

Joyce Carol Oates was not successful in her attempt of this.

The story was entertaining enough, with a fascinatingly eerie quality, but its utter devastation of the ambiguity found in The Turn of the Screw is hard to look past.

Some questions are not meant to be answered, and the uncertainty of the governess’ sanity is such a question. A question that Oates has since then answered in the bluntest way possible.

Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly is not a story that I would recommend anyone fascinated with the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw.

Nor would I recommend it as a stand-alone novel, as this would prove unnecessary confusing for the readers.

It was one of the few stories that I actively regret having read, and the disappointment is twice as big because it was written by someone like Oates, whose mastery of the language is the only reason behind that second star.

Oates is a talented author, but to truly enjoy this talent I suggest you instead pick up Zombie or The Gravedigger’s Daughter, both of which are far superior tales.

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