Rare Horror Reads #1: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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“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.

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“Then it was that the others, the outsiders, were there.”

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?

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“He was there or was not there: not there if I didn’t see him.”

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.”

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“And afterward I imagined–and I still imagine. And what I imagine is dreadful.” “Not so dreadful as what I do,” I replied”

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.

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“She had told me, bit by bit, under pressure, a great deal; but a small shifty spot on the wrong side of it all still sometimes brushed my brow like the wing of a bat.”

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.

8 thoughts on “Rare Horror Reads #1: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. I think Turn of the Screw is one of the few pieces of so-called “classic” literature that I can actually stomach reading more than once. The fact that it feeds my “prodding an unsolvable mystery” fetish only cements it further in my happy place.

    It’s unfortunate it doesn’t get as much love and affection as its contemporaries.

  2. I am am re-reading the book a lot these days because I am writing a paper on it, haha. (which will include The Innocents and The Babadook). I also think that the goal with the book should not be to solve its mystery once and forever, the beauty of it is that you can forever be in that state of “maybe”. 🙂

      1. Both movies have a lot in common: there is focus on the relationship between mothers (I regard the governess as a mother figure) and sons (/children). Both relationships are made worse because of these mother figures, but for an opposing reason: the governess wants to know everything about the children (and especially Miles) while Amelia is separating herself from her son. They are also both convinced that what they do is for the good of the children, and it is the kids who misbehave.

        The Babadook, and ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, make the gap between mothers and children greater.

        Eventually, only Samuel is able to survive (and Flora, but her relationship with the governess is destroyed) which could be said is due to his disobedience. While Miles, trying to see the ghosts (to satisfy the governess), dies in the end.

        Also, for the first part of the movie The Babadook, the audience is not sure whether the Babadook is real. Similarly, we are never sure wether the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw exist.
        I think both works (and also The Innocents from 1961, a really good film adaptation of the Turn of the Screw) play with cognitive abilities of audiences and readers. In the Turn of the Screw and in the first part of the Babadook, there is no definite evidence that these monsters exist, but we are constantly targeted with testimonials pro and against the existence of monsters.
        The Babadook is different in the second half, when we see Amelia confirm the Babadook exists and is not just a fragment of Samuel’s imagination.

  3. Yes, yes yes! Love this book. Not just one of my favorite horror novels–one of my favorite novels period. It is endlessly fascinating and interpretive. I have considered different theories myself over my reads and re-reads–the Governess is attracting the ghosts, acting as a kind of medium; the man who possesses the story in the novel’s introduction is the adult Miles. It’s great that you mentioned the little introductory section, as that sometimes gets ignored by commentators and adapters, and I think it pretty much spells out the idea that the narrative will tell us everything we need to know, but not in some “rude way.”

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