Turn of the Screw is a novella penned by nineteenth century British author Henry James. Considered to be part of the literary ghost story genre, the novella was originally published serially between January and April of 1898 in Collier’s Weekly Magazine, being later compiled into a single volume the following October.
The novella provides a ghost story that is unlike many of the ghost stories being produced during the nineteenth century, which is what makes it so fascinating to me. Rather than having a purely supernatural gothic story, James’ tale creates a sense of anxiety through eerie realities. Its unnamed narrator is a young woman who is hired as governess to two children at Bly, a remote English country house belonging to the children’s family. What begins as a pleasant summer in the country soon turns distressing and traumatic as the governess becomes convinced that the children are consorting with a pair of malevolent ghosts. The ghosts you see are of two former employees of Bly: a valet, one Peter Quint, and a previous governess, Miss Jessel. In life the two of them had been scandalously discharged for their forbidden sexual transgressions with one another, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible sexual abuse. Clearly, as the governess sees it, ten-year-old Miles and eight-year-old Flora must be protected. But her attempts to protect the children from hazards that are possibly immaterial, she instead winds up traumatizing the little girl and killing the little boy.
The use of subtle implications of pedophilia in the text, taking the ghost story into the home and into taboo sexuality rings relevant to stories that many of us read today. In a time where we are becoming both more policed in our speech and language practices, while also embracing a sort of verbal freedom in our day to day lives through social media the sexual abuse of a child, whether implied or overt is still something of nightmares for the majority of American and international populations. The implied sexual perversion of Miles and Flora hits deep in the heart of humanity here. We all identify with the pain that the Governess feels in the text, the ache of wanting to know exactly what occurred prior to her arrival, prior to the deaths of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. We, as readers, violently seek the closure of knowing whether it happened or not, and are inevitably left with no answer. The narrator of the tale is, after all, unreliable. So, in the end we are left with the death of Miles, at the possible hands of the Governess; a cold and distant Flora; and the never ending feeling of the unknown regarding the sexual violence that may have been enacted against the children, and possibly re-enacted by Miles at school, thus prompting his expulsion.
Now, you may be wondering why I chose this text: Well, I chose this story for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I simply adore literature from the 18th and 19th century. There is something delicious in devouring the antiquated prose. Secondly, I chose James’ Turn of the Screw because it is emblematic of one of my favorite types of ghost stories — one that has a sort of eerie ring of truth to it, one that is more relatable than your typical horror ghost story. It works off narratological tricks to induce a slow, creeping anxiety in the reader as opposed to using plot devices for shock value; literary jump scares if you will. All in all, James' text is accessible, if not a bit antiquated in style and prose, and just as ghastly and eerie as it was 118 years ago.
Sarah Camp is an adjunct instructor of Literature and English Composition in Norfolk, VA. A comics scholar by passion, Sarah spends most of her time outside of the classroom reading, researching, and presenting on comics, as well as spending quality time with her dog Lola, and her cat Ozymandias.