The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.
Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…
But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.
For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them. (via Goodreads)
“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
That’s a gutsy way to introduce your horror story, Mr. James…
The Turn of the Screw seems to be one of the end-alls of ambiguity. The governess, our narrator, is perhaps unreliable. She’s young, inexperienced, and finds herself isolated in an incredibly unfamiliar situation. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, tells her about the lurid goings-on of her predecessor and one of her young charges is expelled with little explanation. Is it surprising that her imagination primed on Gothic literature (she mentions The Mysteries of Udolpho by name) might run away with her? Or…does it?
James hits many of the gothic tropes. Our disenfranchised governess is properly stuck in her job and feels pressure to do well. Bly, the house, is seen as something of a barrier; one that keeps the governess in her place, but also as something that the children seek to be free of. Mrs. Grose is the inverse of the helpful servant. She knows half-tales and often she seems to be the densest material on the planet. Once again, the main action of the story is set in the past, though only removed by a few decades.
One of the things I find most uncomfortable about The Turn of the Screw is a detail I would have missed if I hadn’t gone back to reread the prologue. The story comes to an abrupt conclusion, but Douglas–the storyteller in the prologue–claims to have known the governess, that she was his sister’s governess. Which, not to spoil the end of the story, means that the governess was not held responsible for any wrong-doing. Douglas also claims to have enjoyed walks with the governess while at home from school himself. Which brings to mind, to me anyway, the walks that Miles and Flora took with miscreants Quint and Jessel. That’s the ambiguous bit that I’m going to chew on for a while.
Publishing info, my copy: Public Domain, Kindle edition
Genre: Gothic horror