AUGUST 20, 2019
RUTH WARE’S FIFTH NOVEL, The Turn of the Key, is a Victorian Gothic brought roughly into the modern age, Henry James via Black Mirror. As the title suggests, this is a contemporary spin on The Turn of the Screw, in which a nanny cares for a wealthy couple’s children in the remote Scottish moors, featuring all of the motifs of traditional Gothic horror: the isolation, the barren landscape, the forbidding mansion, the uncanny invading domestic spaces, the blurring of the real and the unreal. But Ware’s Heatherbrae House is no drafty Castle of Otranto; it is a futuristic smart home run by Happy, a home-management app, controlling all of the house’s functions — heating, lights, locks, curtains, and cameras surveilling every room, through panels built into the walls. These features can also be accessed remotely, using a phone:
[T]he whole point of the system was that you could control it from anywhere with internet access — check the CCTV when you were on holiday in Verbier, turn on the lights when you were upstairs and wanted to come down, lower the heating when you were stuck in a traffic jam in Inverness.
Drawn to the position, in part, by the extravagant salary, and undeterred by the fact that four nannies have left abruptly in the past year, Rowan Caine quits her job at a daycare facility in South London and heads for the Scottish Highlands to care for Sandra and Bill Elincourt’s three daughters: Maddie (eight), Ellie (five), and baby Petra (18 months). The Elincourts run a successful architecture firm that requires them to be away from home frequently; in fact, as soon as Rowan arrives, she learns she is to be left on her own for the first week with only a massive, overwhelmingly detailed binder to help her navigate the girls’ regimented diets and schedules and the house’s high-tech features. By the end of that week, after a number of disturbing and possibly supernatural incidents, one of the Elincourt children will be dead.
Like The Turn of the Screw, whose narrative frame is that of a troubled, deceased governess’s manuscript being read aloud as a ghost story to assembled guests, The Turn of the Key is structured as a letter written by Rowan from the Scottish prison where she is being held for the child’s murder in what has become a very high-profile case, petitioning the services of a solicitor named Mr. Wrexham, who has “a reputation for getting even no-hopers off the hook.” Rowan beseeches him to take on her case: asserting her innocence, claiming her defense was mishandled, and begging him to listen to her full account of what happened over the course of that week, “to show how it all built up, all the little things, all the sleepless nights and the loneliness and the isolation, and the craziness of the house and the cameras and everything else. To explain properly, I have to tell you how it happened.”
Along with the predictable difficulties of settling in to a new home and establishing trust and authority with children who are acting out in their parents’ absence, a number of unsettling incidents occur that seem to substantiate the local gossip that Heatherbrae House is haunted: sudden power outages, music blaring on in the middle of the night, Rowan’s discovery of a cryptic warning from a previous nanny, mysterious banging noises, small items going missing and reappearing, and — most alarmingly — the sound of footsteps pacing the floor of the attic above Rowan’s bedroom each night. When Rowan tries to investigate these noises, she discovers that the door to the attic is locked and, unlike most of the house’s doors, it cannot be accessed via Happy, requiring a key that is nowhere to be found. The secrets locked away behind an attic door calls to mind another Victorian Gothic nanny — Jane Eyre — and, like Jane, Rowan will discover that what she doesn’t know could hurt her.
The children, after having seen so many nannies come and go, are wary of Rowan’s presence, particularly the resentful and manipulative Maddie, who bullies Ellie into an oppositional stance against Rowan, misbehaving and making ominous remarks about ghosts and dead little girls, tattling to her mother when Rowan missteps. Under the strain of managing two unruly children and a fussy baby, operating on little or no sleep after being repeatedly woken by alarms and doorbells going off unprovoked, Rowan begins to unravel, becoming increasingly paranoid and panicked by the chaos surrounding her.
“Do you understand, how hard it was, shut up there, night after night with nothing but the sound of pacing footsteps?”
Although she came to Heatherbrae House confident that she wasn’t some flighty au pair fleeing ghosts in the middle of the night — “I wasn’t superstitious, I wasn’t nervy, I wasn’t the kind of person who saw signs and portents around every corner and crossed themselves when they saw a black cat on Friday the thirteenth” — she is nonetheless unnerved by her situation, made more unstable by the anxiety of preserving her facade. “I had so much to hide, after all.”
Rowan is not necessarily an unreliable narrator, but she is careful about how much of her backstory she reveals in her letter to Mr. Wrexham. She is candid about her own character flaws — flaws that were used against her during her trial — and the fact that the responsible nanny persona she presented in order to get the job was misleading:
I could spin you a web of bullshit about what a perfect, caring, saintly person I am — but it would be just that. Bullshit. And I am not here to bullshit you. I want you to believe that — I want it more than anything in the world.
I am telling you the truth. The unvarnished, ugly truth. And it is all that. It is unpolished and unpleasant, and I don’t pretend I acted like an angel. But I didn’t kill anyone. I just fucking didn’t.
As forthright as she is in these statements, it is established from the beginning that she has her own secrets and hidden motives for applying for the post, that “Rowan the Perfect Nanny with her buttoned-up cardigans, her pasted-on smile, and her perfect CV” was a carefully constructed persona. Outsider characters are a staple of the Gothic literary tradition, and Rowan is certainly that: she’s an Englishwoman in Scotland, she’s the help in a wealthy home, and she’s quite literally become an “other,” playing a role to get what she wants. “I wanted it,” she says.
Not just the fifty-five thousand a year, but everything. I wanted this beautiful house and this gorgeous room, right down to the sumptuous, marble-tiled shower, with its sparkling limescale-free glass and polished chrome fittings. More than that, I wanted to be part of this family.
The discomfort and stress of being in unfamiliar surroundings, in a home where she can’t even figure out how to operate familiar objects like the coffee-maker or Happy’s personalized shower settings, while working under the perceived scrutiny of employers who could be watching her, undetected, at any time in a “house of hidden eyes and ears and speakers” heightens Rowan’s feelings of otherness. Everything she does begins to take on a performative aspect, and she struggles to maintain her perfect nanny act under the weight of her secrets.
There are, of course, as many kinds of secrets as there are reasons for keeping them. Not all of them are malicious, and as her story unfolds, it becomes clear that everyone under the Elincourts roof — from the dour housekeeper and the handsome and rugged odd-job man to the Elincourt children themselves — has secrets of their own, which Ware dispenses sparingly to maximize the suspense.
Furnishing a traditional Gothic suspense story line with such ultra-modern trappings may seem incongruous or even anachronistic, but Ware handles this juxtaposition admirably, mirroring this blending of genres in the composition of Heatherbrae House, an “odd mixture of traditional and modern.” Architecture is an important component in Gothic literature, and here the house’s structure is used as an analogue to what Ware is doing with her narrative structure. Using their own home as an exemplar of their professional objectives, the Elincourts have restored its “face,” preserving the original appearance and spirit:
[A] modest Victorian lodge, foursquare, like a child’s drawing of a house, with a glossy black door in the center and windows on each side. It was not big but solidly built of granite blocks, with lush Virginia creeper rambling up one side of it […] it exuded warmth and luxury and comfort.
The extensive grounds have also been left as-is, sprawling and unmanicured, covering a property that also includes a historically significant poison garden, whose plants once killed a young girl.
However, in addition to upgrading the house’s wiring to accommodate Happy, the Elincourts have added their own architectural touches to the bones of the house, removing the back half and attaching a sleek glass vault to the existing structure. “It was like the back of the house had been sliced off brutally and grafted onto a startling modernist box, almost aggressively twenty-first century.”
These floor-to-ceiling glass panels face out into the vastness of the estate’s grounds: “[T]here was literally nothing in front of us but glass — and beyond that the landscape falling away, patched with forest and the faraway glimmer of lochs and burns. It was like there was nothing between us, and the wilderness beyond.”
Not only is this a startling encroachment of wild nature into the domestic sphere, but it heightens Rowan’s uneasy sense of being observed. Along with the cameras inside the house, potentially watching her every move, she is made uncomfortably aware of her own vulnerability against nature; a small thing looking out while the immense wilderness looks in.
The schizophrenic design of the house increases Rowan’s sense of dislocation, its “sudden disorienting switches from Victorian opulence to sleek futuristic technology” subtly contributing to her suspicion that things are not quite right within its walls.
There was something disconcerting about the way the old and new combined in this house. It wasn’t like most homes, where modern additions rubbed up alongside original features and somehow combined into a friendly, eclectic whole. Here there was a strange impression of oil and water — everything was either self-consciously original or glaringly modern, with no attempt to integrate the two.
To someone already on edge, suffering from the effects of insomnia, seeing things out of the corners of her eyes, spooked by the sounds of crying coming from a baby monitor when Petra is indisputably asleep, walking on eggshells under constant fear of discovery, it’s no surprise that the house takes on a sinister aspect, giving off “an odd sensation of vulnerability — the way the foursquare front looked so neat and untouched, while at the back it had been ripped open, exposing all the house’s insides.”
The Turn of the Key is a modern Gothic novel with a simple, chilling premise: “[A] young woman, alone, in a strange house, with strangers watching you.” Built around this premise are layers of suspense forming a web of complexities reflecting a number of contemporary concerns. Some of these themes address social issues like wealth and sexual entitlement, but also — if Rowan’s situation as a live-in nanny is extrapolated to services like Uber and Airbnb — how normalized it has become to allow strangers into our private spaces, trusting that we won’t be harmed or our privacy violated. There are also technological concerns raised: not only the frustration and helplessness that comes with relinquishing control to the machines when those systems fail, but also the loss of privacy in a thoroughly monitored world, and the collapsing distinctions between private and public spaces, where we, like Rowan, are not only watched but recorded.
Technology, as a help and hindrance, plays a large role in this book, supplying a nonbeliever’s explanation for the eerie events. While the ambiguity in James’s masterpiece is “ghosts or madness?,” here it is “ghosts or glitch?” Unlike The Turn of the Screw, however, Ware picks a lane, deploying a satisfyingly dizzying parade of twists and reveals without leaving much unexplained.