For whatever reason, I’ve been on a scary book kick this year. The first year ever. Naturally, the first one on my list to read is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a classic ghost book (maybe even the classic ghost book—I added a great list of classic horror reads here).
A governess travels to a remote location in England, Bly House to watch over two children. The house is lovely, the children perfect, and it seems the perfect situation…until it isn’t. The governess starts seeing two ghosts, and she discovers a dark history of Bly involving the last governess and a valet, both dead.. Worse yet, the children can see the ghosts, too, and they don’t seem to be frightened at all. The governess suspects something sinister, even evil, is going on, and the battle she wages is the battle for two young souls.
This isn’t a horror novel in the modern sense of the word—gruesome and surprising—but it has a subtle suspense limning the gothic setting that makes it scarier than any modern fiction.
The governess is supposedly a reliable character, but you do wonder. Has her situation, the isolation of the house and her life, driven her mad? Henry James intentionally makes you wonder. Regardless, she goes and above for her charges.
The housekeeper is an interesting confidante. She deeply loves the children, but she knows there’s something going on with them. However, instead of investigating like the governess, she ignores it, probably hoping that it’ll go away.
On the outside, Miles and Flora seem like the perfect children. We don’t actually know any differently. What we see of them is good; what we hear of them via the governess’s thoughts and impressions, is a different matter entirely. They seem older than their years, wiser, more insidious. And yet, innocent. Miles is especially a fascinating character because there’s a clear dichotomy between what he supposedly is and how the reader sees him, and that essence changes; He changes.
I love how the plot is so pedestrian on one hand (a governess taking care of children) and so insidious on the other (a governess who knows that her charges are haunted despite evidence to the contrary). It’s suspenseful. It alludes to some great evil, but Henry James would never be so gauche as to be explicit about such things. It’s amazingly haunting. I can’t decide if the sudden conclusion adds to the disturbing quality of the story or just annoys me. I feel like there should be more closure, but then the abruptness probably lends to the general atmosphere of mystery and disquiet.
This is a classic, so the writing is more liquid and eloquent and—sometimes—difficult to understand than you’d find in modern writing. I love the dated feel of the prose (probably the same reason I love Austen and Dickens). It yields up so many great quotes:
“The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance—all strewn with crumpled playbills.”
Aren’t these sentences so descriptive? I can smell the changing weather, the darkness of autumn, the creeping coldness of winter (and death).
This book is a masterpiece of horror and suspense, an art form that’s been lost in the subsequent years. The less Henry James writes, the more he says between those words.