The Turn of the Screw (1898) - novella

Because you know I love a good ghost story.

Author:  Henry James
Publisher:  William Heinemann, London; The Macmillan Company, New York City
Quote:  "No - I suppose we shouldn't.  Of course we have the others."  "We have the others - we have indeed the others," I concurred.
Genre:  novella, serial novel, psychological thriller, thriller, suspense, ghost story, ghost, haunting, drama
Scare score:  B-
Rating:  C+

Plot overview:  In 19th century England, a young, respectable governess is hired to take charge of the education of the orphaned niece and nephew of a disinterested London man.  Upon arriving to Bly, the man's country estate, the governess is smitten with 6-year-old Flora and 10-year-old Miles, the latter of whom has just been expelled from boarding school under entirely mysterious circumstances, describing them both as perfectly handsome, intelligent, and loving.  The governess begins to doubt the children's angelic qualities, however, once the lonely household begins being visited by the specters of two very unwelcome, unholy guests.

This novella, extremely famous to this day for its masterful use of suspense both in content and form, is perhaps best known today as the inspiration behind The Others starring Nicole Kidman.  Having seen that movie countless times (and always forgetting to review it...), I was more than happy to find this book, pick it up, and devour it in a few hours of free time.

Horror Fan was not the biggest fan of the writing style of this book, although the terror is certainly pure and enjoyable.  I foremost had an issue with the rather confusing nature of the governess' narrative.  Understandably a lot of this was done on purpose to mix up the reader, making him further doubt what is happening in the story.  I think half of my problem was that the now aging language was a bit confusing for me in some points (and I ain't no dope), but then there we so, so many padded and run on sentences.  What I'm TRYING to say, I do believe, is that the governess, our dear narrator, often finds it necessary, nay, IMPERATIVE, to speak in such a way - such a way that I hope to convey in this VERY phrase - that requires a most distressful, and, dare I say, frustrating overuse of commas and - you perhaps catch my drift - asides; not to mention the BIZARRE usage of, as you can perhaps see, if it is not too much to ask of you, capital letters to denote EMPHASIS; and I ask myself, humbly, of course, did italic letters NOT exist YET?  Case in point.  Try getting through an entire novella written like that.  The constant majuscule exclamations in today's internet day and age just made me feel as if these people were screaming at me, which perhaps makes the story even that much more suspenseful and stressful.  Furthermore, any scene between the governess and her confidant, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, feel like high school girls gossiping with PhD level vocabulary.  The bickering, so feminine, in these scenes almost complicate the plot even more than clarify it, as their conversations often revolve around trying to fix the worsening problems at Bly.

Aside from confusing dialogue, stories from wealthy British society up through the turn of the century nowadays result more distanced from the modern reader because of the importance of class, level, and respect that, especially in America, is very difficult to understand.  The greatest example in The Turn of the Screw would have to be the governess' (or anybody's) sheer inability to ask Miles why he was expelled from boarding school.  Being both a woman and an employee of the family, it is not the governess' place to ask - even if she is the only caretaker truly raising this kids.  Like okay imperialist England and your middle class/ working class divisions.  I mean he's 10, and the house is falling apart because of ghost sightings; just ask the kid.


Let's talk about the horror in this novella: it's fantastic from the first moment we have an apparition.  I think the reader, especially one biased by having seen The Others (I myself was constantly questioning to what extent the film drew from the story), picks up on his or her own doubt of the governess' sanity pretty early on in the novella.  As the story races forward, speech becomes quicker, more frantic, chapters become shorter, and the screws seem to come loose, as it were.

Are the ghosts real?  While the governess herself seems to be completely within her wits, enough so to convince other members of the house of what she is seeing, there are moments she also shows critical doubt.  The second time Quint appears to her, the governess says, "The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life," (Part IX).  While reading, I thought for sure that this was a hint as to who the real ghosts in the story were, but alas, that wasn't the case.

What's interesting in the governess' predicament of seeing these two ghosts is her knee-jerk reaction to be a concern not for her own safety but for the children, whom she adores and exalts perhaps too much.  Although the ghosts seem only to be appearing to her, she fervidly imagines that the children are in on the haunting, both as conjurers but also as victims.  She says, "Then it was that the others, the outsiders, were there.  Though they were not angels, they "passed," as the French say, causing me, while they stayed, to tremble with the fear of their addressing to their younger victims some yet more infernal message or more vivid image than they had thought good enough for myself," (Part XIII).  All along, our narrator imagines - strongly and intuitively feels - that these ghosts are looking to connect with the children as sinisterly in death as they did in life.  Implications that Quint and Miss Jessel molested or otherwise abused Miles are only too prevalent in the delicate, beating-around-the-bush manner in which the story's characters talk.  No doubt his abuse had to do with whatever it was he said to his friends at boarding school that ultimately got him expelled without the possibility of returning.

So are the children bad? too smart for their age?  too cunning beyond their demure appearances?  Or is our governess an unreliable narrator, torn apart at the seems by the pressure of her new post and her abhorrence of privileged men in upperclass society such as her father, the uncle, and especially Miles?  If the governess is insane, how is it that she could have perfectly described the ghosts of Bly's two former employees?  This leads us to question Mrs. Grose, who we don't truly know that we can trust either.  The truth is we cannot trust anybody in this story, and regardless of whether or not the ghosts are real or imaginary, they are terrifying in description and appearance (a pale, ginger face staring intently through the window; a figure all dressed in black crying at the bottom of the stairs), and their inclusion into the text is done wonderfully, making it truly scary.

Final critique:  What is the source of horror in this 1898 novella?  A frantic and fast-paced narrative involving children who seem too precious to be true and a governess who seems too nervous to trust, not to mention those two ghosts prowling the property and pages, result in a quick (although confusing) read that allows the reader to make the final decision.  It is the very ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw that has kept it famous to this day.  What do you think?