Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository
A chilling ghost story, wrought with tantalising ambiguity, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is edited with an introduction and notes by David Bromwich in Penguin Classics. In what Henry James called a 'trap for the unwary', The Turn of the Screw tells of a nameless young governess sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans, Miles and Flora. Unsettled by a dark foreboding of menace within the house, she soon comes to believe that something malevolent is stalking the children in her care. But is the threat to her young charges really a malign and ghostly presence or something else entirely? The Turn of the Screw is James's great masterpiece of haunting atmosphere and unbearable tension and has influenced subsequent ghost stories and films such as The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, and The Others, starring Nicole Kidman.
“No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”
Being a fan of horror novels and especially ghost stories, I’ve been eager to make my way to more of the classics so as to see for myself where horror originated. The Turn of the Screw is one those, featuring two children who appear to be consorting with ghosts and a governess who’s sole purpose in life has become to save the children from these evil spiritual entities. Intriguing, but the incredible dense writing really killed this for me despite its short length.
“Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature. I could only get on at all by taking “nature” into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”
Interestingly enough though, upon reflection, I realized that it’s more impressive novel than I originally thought. The story is less straightforward than it would appear, where the children may or may not be seeing ghosts and the governess may or may not be going mad. Were the children lying all along about not being able to see the ghosts? If they were, did that in effect push the governess over the edge, believing herself to be seeing something and then being told that no one else sees it but her? That would be enough to twist anyone’s mind. But if the children were being honest all along, the governess was, in fact, the only horror the children were witnessing.
“I was a screen– I was their protector. The more I saw, the less they would.”
Considering that our narrator is, in fact, the governess, working with an unreliable narrator leaves the reader in charge of separating fact from fiction. And James’ continued ambiguity to the very end of this short tale subsequently leaves it up to the reader to decide what was truly happening all along. I’m a bit on the fence myself, believing that both circumstances are believably terrifying and equally likely.