The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898): One of the great horrors of a lot of first-year university English courses is The Turn of the Screw. It’s really not something that should be inflicted on anyone below third-year English. And besides the complicated sentence structures of Henry James, there’s a cruel tease in handing students a ghost story that’s too attentuated to be viscerally scary.
So it goes. The striking things about the story have nothing to do with horror, and everything to do with a realistically imagined reaction to horror. It’s one of the first psychological examinations of the workings of terror on the human mind. For actual scares, James’ admirer Edith Wharton was much more forthright and reliable. Her ghosts stories would be fine first-year texts. James, not so much.
The distancing effects of the text play into its very title, which is, as explained in the story, a metaphoric description of the effects of a particular type of narrative, the ghost story itself. In the narrative, the revelation of the events of the story of the governess comes as a result of a bout of fireside ghost-story telling. The typical ghost story elicits certain reactions: to imperil children in such a story represents a further “turn of the screw” to increase the emotional and horrific “pressure” on the audience.
The two schools of thought on The Turn of the Screw roughly divide up into ‘There are ghosts’ and ‘there are no ghosts.’ The latter requires narrative duplicity on the level of The Usual Suspects: pretty much everything in the main part of the story that describes the struggle between a young governess and two malign ghosts for the souls of her two young charges must either be confabulation on the part of the governess or, at a further remove, confabulation on the part of the frame character who has ostensibly set down her narrative.
The former requires suspension of disbelief, something the average reader will accept but that many academics are incapable of accepting. There are no ghosts in the real world; hence, the ghosts in James’ story must be fiction. If there are ghosts, though, what then? We know they did something to the young girl and young boy when they were still alive. What?
James isn’t necessarily going to answer such questions. There’s a reticence born of his own sensibilities and the sensibilities of the time. That reticence occurs within the story-world as well: the governess is at all points constrained by what is or is not proper to talk about, by what is or is not mentionable in polite company. Within that story-world in which there are malign ghosts, propriety allows those ghosts much more free rein than they might have in other circumstances.
But the genius of the story lies in the aforementioned psychological examination of the effects of terror on a human mind. The governess’ mind must circle, returning again and again to its own reactions to things others cannot see, forced to deal again and again with feelings of horror the source of which only she seems to see. How much do the children see? How many of the children’s actions constitute clever play-acting? What do the ghosts want now?
Around and around we go. The chills here are almost entirely of a philosophical or existential nature: how does the mind in isolation react to that which should not be? How can action be taken against incorporeal beings that never really act against one, but instead appear and disappear, trailing clouds of malevolence? How complicit is the governess in what happens? And why does she write exactly like Henry James? Highly recommended.