Tuesday, October 27, 2009

General Uncanny Ugliness and Horror and Pain: A Look at The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except for the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child....'If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?' 'We say of course,' somebody exclaimed, 'that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.'" -Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

What is about creepy children that makes them so disturbing to adults? Of course, anything creepy has the potential to be disturbing, but creepy children especially seem to have their own special power. This power has made them a recurring motiff in popular culture and imagination. They run rampant in many classic horror movies (Village of the Damned, The Omen, and The Exorcist being just to mention a few). Children belong to another world in a way, and since every adult was once a child, they can observe and vaguely remember this world without really being able understand it anymore. At least not in the same way. Also many adults prefer to view children as innocent creatures, blissfully unaware of the evil that goes on in the world, and a buffer between them and it. When this buffer disappears and children become part of that evil, it implies the world's balance is basically shot. But it's often forgotten how vulnerable children are. They live at the mercy of adults and consequently they see and experience very adult things whether they mean to or not. It's this reality that lies at the center of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, one of the best ghost stories of all time and the mackdaddy of psychological horror.

Note: I don't give away the ending of The Turn of the Screw but I do reveal a good amount of the plot.

First published in 1898, James's novella begins with a group of guests gathered for Christmas holidays who pass the evenings telling ghost stories. One of them, a man named Douglas, produces an old manuscript and reads it aloud. It is the memoir of a young lady he once knew and tells of how she, as a 20-year-old parson's daughter, took a position (her first) as governess for two orphans living in a large, isolated manor house in the English countryside. Their guardian, having inherited them from his brother and sister-in-law who died in India, is too preoccupied with his swinging London bachelor lifestyle to take care of them himself. The job has its drawbacks--no company besides the kids, some servants, and a housekeeper; a strange rule that no matter what happens the governess must take care of it herself and not trouble the Uncle; and then there is the matter of the previous governess who died....but oh well! She takes the job, of course.

At first, everything goes swimmingly. The kids, Miles and Flora (ten and eight respectively), are angelic, well-behaved, beautiful children, even though Miles was just expelled from school for reasons unknown. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, is helpful and kind, if a little overly happy to see her. And the Uncle is so handsome and charming and seemed to like her so much during the interview. Surely, he'll come and visit once in awhile, even though he obviously wants nothing to do with the kids. Nothing to worry about. But then strange things start happening. Our heroine sees ghostly figures of a man and a woman around the grounds and notices peculiar, less than angelic behavior from the children. She starts wondering what it all means and what, if anything, she can do to stop it and save the kids. If it isn't too late.

What makes The Turn of the Screw so brilliant and such a fascinating read is its remarkable ambiguity. The heroine comes to believe the house is haunted by the spirits of the former governess, Miss Jessel, and the Uncle's former valet, Peter Quint, who had an illicit affair before both dying under mysterious circumstances. She also believes that the spirits are trying to possess the children and that the children are aware of the dark presence around them. Because of the way James structures the story, it's very possible that ghosts are haunting the house, but it's just as possible that our heroine is crazy. Her perspective skewers everything, making us question the truth at every turn, even as she's desperately confiding in us, assured of our belief. The book is a perfect example of how effective a first person narrator can be when used in a certain way.

Also fascinating is the air of unseemly sexuality that literally coats the whole book. I never like to accuse an author of intending a certain message with their work when I don't know it for a fact, but the book does make a very powerful statement about the repressed attitude towards sex in Victorian England. There is a palpable longing in Douglas's voice as he describes the young woman to his fellow guests before reading her story. He describes her interview with the Uncle as a "seduction exercised by the splendid young man. She succumbed to it." This sexual language continues throughout the story as the governess describes her impressions of the house, the ghosts, the Uncle, and even the kids, which led me (and many critics) to wonder "is the house really haunted or does she just need to get laid?" And then there's the passionate, probably sadomasochistic relationship between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint which may have extended to include the children. Whether or not their spirits are haunting the house, Quint and Jessel clearly left a strange mark on Miles and Flora. It's never revealed for certain what exactly the children saw or were forced to take part in, but the hints are more than enough to scare us. The governess's fascination with this leads to one of the book's most disturbing aspects. As Douglas warns his audience in the prologue, The Turn of the Screw is a sort of love story. But who is the governess in love with? The story never says so outright, leaving it entirely up to the reader and laying the foundation for something truly frightening. Or as Douglas calls it "beyond everything...for uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

You've been warned. Once you read it, it won't go away.

P.S. The Turn of the Screw's been adapted many times in many different mediums. It's been turned into everything from an opera to a graphic novel to a Kate Bush song and of course, many, many movies. One of the best of these is The Innocents released in 1961. I loved The Innocents mainly because it managed to retain all the ambiguity of the book. At the end, I was just as confused and unsettled as I was at the end of the book. It also features great performances by Deborah Kerr as the governess and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as Miles and Flora. The Innocents in turn inspired The Others starring Nicole Kidman (also worth checking out). Once you've read the book, I also highly recommend "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly" by Joyce Carol Oates which retells the story from Jessel and Quint's point of view.


  1. This story is totally creepy and quite engaging as well. I love your discussion of it!

    On an unrelated note, I just found this website (with companion blog) that, if you haven't already seen, you might want to check out:
    I was excited to find out that it was started for a graduate info sci class! I love library science students!

  2. Thanks Caitlin!

    And I HAVE seen SurLaLune. I love it. I'm on it all the time. I love that they include annotated versions of the story. So much great stuff (that on-line store is dangerous though). Didn't know how it came to be though. Very cool. I'm not at all surprised.