As I mentioned yesterday, in England ghost stories are common fare for the Christmas season. In that tradition, James begins his chilling tale as a story offered at a holiday gathering long after the events of the tale have occurred. The guests at a holiday celebration gather around to hear one of their members relate a story that was told to him of evil spirits and a haunted family.
The perspective quickly shifts to the voice of a nameless young woman who is hired as governess for two children living in Bly, a manor house in the English countryside. The children’s guardian instructs the young woman that she will have great sway in managing the household, but that he does not want any reports or questions from her as to events there. It is an odd command, and one that becomes increasingly sinister as the story progresses.
She arrives to find her young charges Flora and Miles to be well-mannered and polite, almost to a fault, though Miles has been expelled from his boarding school for some unexplained incident. James builds the suspense slowly, as the new governess acquaints herself with her situation and the inhabitants of the household. In elegant and mannered prose, James drops hints that not all is as it should be here. What did happen to the previous governess? Where are those odd noises coming from? And, who or what does the new governess see out of the corner of her eye?
As the story progress, the sense of evil becomes increasingly palpable, and the additional “turn of the screw” here is that the evil seems to center around the children, particularly the young boy Miles. The story builds as ghosts appear to the governess and, apparently, to the children. The psychological tension in the story is enhanced as the reader is unsure of the governess’s own mental state. Is she seeing things, or do these ghosts really exist and haunt the house? Are the children innocents whose lives are invaded by the revenants, or are they more deeply involved in the hauntings? These unanswered questions make James’ novella a fascinating and frightening tale of innocence and evil.
Check the WRL catalog for The Turn of the Screw
Although we do not have a copy at the library, you might also want to seek out the opera by Benjamin Britten based on the James story. Britten’s twelve-tone score is a superb counterpart to the eerie story, and the opera may be even more frightening than the book.