"The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

"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. "

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The ghost stories of the Victorian era are full of scares and mysteries- - - from the karma-ridden future, past and present ghosts of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to the comedic ghost story by Oscar Wilde called 'the Canterville Ghost." But among all of them, Henry James found another subject to add to the pot in the novella 'the Turn of the Screw.'

With only 93 pages and the viewpoint of a governess, the story is one that has been up for debate as to its meaning for over a century, a story that blends child abuse and ghostly possession way ahead of its time. But even with its great plot, the story falls short and becomes bland throughout most of its short pages.

So why is the meaning of the Turn of the Screw still being debated? There's only one thing that has caused that --- it's in the way that James wrote the story, nothing is explained and everything is vague, these being very important parts that can keep this book from being enjoyable to many readers. Here's a summary of the story: a woman becomes governess of two children, one of which is sent home from school (technically expelled, in today's terms), the entire book has this woman trying to figure out why the child was sent home, but with ghosts thrown into the mix.

The story starts off with a man telling this ghost story from letters he received from a woman (the governess). But, even at the end of the book, the story never turns back to the man finishing the letters, yet this was done so masterfully that when you are done with the book, you completely forget about the man at the beginning, something that isn't easily done today in most writing. The man is reading these letters to a small audience that is also never revealed why, something that will seem completely irrelevant for the reader.

Readers finally get their paranormal fix when our main character, the governess, sees her first ghost in the Turn of the Screw. Our governess goes on an isolated walk when she spots an older man staring at her from a tower on the estate. But not until after a second encounter with this man, she decides to tell a housemaid about it, who quickly knows whom she speaks of. The maid is very certain that the man the governess has spotted twice is a deceased man that used to work for the family, but the maid is terrified by this because this man seems to have been abusive towards the son of the family and now seems to be continuing to torment him even after death.

Our governess seems to go down a path of paranoia as she seems to believe that the children are seeing the ghosts, too, but refusing to tell her so, and she becomes convinced that the key to getting them to confess is to finding out why the boy was sent home from school in the first place. She tries many times to get him to tell her why, but lets him take control of the conversations where he is able to divert the attention to something else. When things seem to be too much for the governess and housemaid to handle, they decide to try to write the childrens' uncle, and ask him to visit - - - this being the uncle that hired the governess and asked to never be bothered by her again, and that he wants nothing to do with his niece and nephew ever again, and especially don't write to him about any problems.

James is considered one of the greatest authors of the English language, but although this novella did very well, he wasn't known for ghost stories. His most popular book is 'the Portrait of a Lady,' which is about a young woman who comes into a large amount of money only to have it stolen by two con-men. Being that he is a Victorian-era writer, you can expect the overly long paragraphs and descriptions that the time was known for in 'the Turn of the Screw.' I personally felt the story had too many interludes of the governess' thoughts and ideas, which border on rambling. There seemed no point in the governess obsessing over why the boy was sent home from school when there are ghosts tormenting them at home- - - how this mode was suppose to work has left me clueless.

It's a usual horror trope to have children being possessed as the core of a book because it's something that can shake adults to their core at the thought that their own children could be that vulnerable. But James was way ahead of his time in the Turn of the Screw. He was able to put together psychological standpoints that weren't even discussed in his time, bouncing between child abuse with those children acting out to the power that abusers can still hold over their victims, even after death.

I'm giving the story a high rating, although I really didn't enjoy it. Why? Because it was a great idea and it was well written. If James hadn't been so vague on key parts, and hadn't left readers with a shocking unexplained ending, then maybe I would have liked it more. I can only recommend this book to people who like Victorian ghost stories, but for paranormal lovers, I think it falls short.

My rating:

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