There was nothing in the room the next minute but the sunshine and a sense that I must stay
The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.
Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…
But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil. For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.
I had this novella recommended to me by a few people, and I didn’t hate my last outing with Henry James (Daisy Miller) so hey, why not?
The Turn of the Screw begins in that strange 19th-century manner of a narrator telling a story about another person telling a story. (See also: Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness) In this case, a man talks about another man who tells a story based on notes written by a woman about a ghost encounter she had. Sounds confusing? It is. And I would love if someone with, say, a degree in 19th-century literature could enlighten me on why this narrative style even exists.
Anyway, once the story kicks off we fall into a world seen through the eyes of a governess- an estate in the country, two young orphans, a mystery expulsion from school, and scandalous tales of former employees who are now dead. The governess herself is a stellar example of an unreliable narrator. As the plot progresses and the mysteries unfold it is difficult to tell what is real and what is her own paranoia. After all, she does admit to not sleeping for days.
The ambiguity is what really made the story. The ghost plot is creepy, but the frantic mindset of this young woman is the truly chilling aspect. Her possible delusions, combined with creepy kids and some unspoken accusations regarding former employees creates a really unsettling environment.
Unsettling, yes. That’s a good world for this story. It’s not really jump-from-your-seat scary, but the governess’s thoughts and actions towards her potentially haunted environment just don’t sit well. Her distress is apparent on the page, even though the prose around it can get rather wordy. At any rate, on to of all that James leaves so much open to interpretation that you’ll be wondering for days afterward.
Should You Read This?
The Turn of the Screw is considered a “classic ghost story,” so if you want to round out your reading resume, give it a whirl. It’s short! And out of copyright!
However, are you are looking for a terrifying ghost story? I wouldn’t describe it as one. It’s creepy in the way that most stories about children in mostly abandoned houses are, but the frights come from the psychology of the narrator rather from the supernatural. It’ll make you feel weird, but not afraid to sleep with the lights off.
Summary from Goodreads