“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!”
The Turn of the Screw is a febrile nightmare, suggesting everything, suggesting nothing. Is it a ghost story? Is it a mystery uncovering a terrible history of abuse? Is it about madness, born of Victorian repression? Whatever it is thematically, it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of literature and a cornerstone of horror fiction.
A man reads a manuscript purported to be written by a governess that he knew. The manuscript tells of how the governess is hired by a rich bachelor to take care of his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. The bachelor takes himself away to the city, leaving the care of the house and the children to the governess and the housekeeper. At first, things are idyllic – a sprawling, luxurious manor amid pastoral beauty, and two seemingly angelic children. Then, word comes of how young Miles was dismissed from his boarding school for an unspoken crime, and strange figures are seen at the horizon and peering in windows. Is there something sinister and supernatural at foot, or is it all in the mind of the governess?
To read The Turn of the Screw is a suffocating, chilling, experience; like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, there is a feeling of watching a fragile mind fraying, of bearing witness to the perfect logic of madness. The governess’ story is circling, circling, endlessly circling, always suggestive and never direct, in that particular, pathological Victorian manner. Debates have raged since the novella’s publication about whether there is anything supernatural occurring, or whether it is the governess and her poisoned mind that is haunting Bly House. Also worth questioning is the veracity of the manuscript – was it all a piece of fiction from the man introduced in the framing device, and does the governess even exist from the perspective of the narrator? There is a sense that Miss Jessel and Quint are glimpses into a corrupted, innocence-lost future for the children Miles and Flora. Like all purposeful exercises in ambiguity, ultimately a concrete answer is beside the point – what is important is the supreme steady hand in crafting a perfect puzzle that can be debated, pondered over, and admired from any angle. As Brad Leithauser says in his New Yorker essay, Even Scarier: On “The Turn of the Screw”, “All such attempts to ‘solve’ the book, however admiringly tendered, unwittingly work toward its diminution[; its] profoundest pleasure lies in the beautifully fussed over way in which James refuses to come down on either side… the book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity.”
Worth mentioning is the tremendous film adaptation of the novella, The Innocents. Directed by Jack Clayton and scripted by Truman Capote based on the play by William Archibald, the movie is as perfect an adaptation of the novel as one could hope for, and one of the best haunting films ever made.
The Turn of the Screw offers no easy answers, and most likely offers no answers at all. What it does offer is a compelling, eerie, and strange piece of fiction that will lodge itself in your mind and haunt you much as the governess is haunted by Miss Jessel and Quint. Once finished and put aside, some time later it will appear in your mind unprompted; perhaps this time I read it, you will think, everything will become clear. Like the murky, reed-shadowed lake haunted by Miss Jessel, or the chill-shrouded window panes behind which Quint lurks, however, the mystery will never be quite clear enough. And so, as before, you will return to read it again, to forever puzzle and ponder amid the halls and grounds of Bly House.