This is not a ghost story…or is it? Which reading is scarier?
The premise of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is wonderful. A group of people have been telling ghost stories when one realises that the previous tale was all the more scary because it contained a child – metaphorically tightening up the tension yet higher. We’re then promised a story that is even more frightening because it contains two children, and we all know that good horror stories work by the numbers.
I’m being flippant because, from this point on, Henry James really gets in to his stride which means long long sentences, very slow build ups and inconclusive pay-offs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge James fan, but I don’t read him for past paced tension. He has a unique convoluted way of telling what are, essentially, very simple stories. The narrative of a governess who looks after two children in an extremely isolated house could be told in a couple of paragraphs, even when you add in the fact that these children, apparently, were close to their two previous, evil, carers. Naturally, in Henry James you don’t hear how or why these carers were so evil, but they were apparently a hideous corrupting influence. And they can’t seem to leave the children be – the governess starts seeing glimpses of them across lakes and near towers. Frightening things happen but they’re incredibly veiled and obscure. This didn’t matter for me because, on every reading, I get freaked out very near the start.
I’m sure this isn’t intentional, but I find the children terrifying. Before little Miles appears in person, we’re told that he’s been expelled from school for being ‘really bad‘, apparently ‘he’s an injury to others’. We then meet the disarming children, first the ‘beatific’ Flora, a ‘vision…of angelic beauty’, then Miles who has ‘the same positive fragrance of purity [as]… his little sister’. I find such children genuinely uncanny, and then they behave so perfectly all the time. They are without a doubt two of the creepiest characters in literature.
The centre of the story is the governess and I really don’t want to spoil it for new readers, so all I’ll say is to remember that she’s our only narrator. It’s left to you to work out what’s really going on as the tale builds to its climax. She’s scary too and so are the other characters, I’m just aware that I have to work myself up to be frightened by them while my response to the children is instinctive and may say more about me than the story…
My only caution with approaching ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is to remind you again that this is a novelly by Henry James and is probably the slowest-paced and most opaque horror story in English literature. The question about how much it is a ghost story and how much a twisted tale of insanity can be debated endlessly. Make up your own mind, and then be grateful you never had to be stuck in an isolated house with any of the characters in this book.