Full disclosure: I was supposed to have read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw for my AP Language class about 15 years ago, but like many books assigned to me, I forewent the reading and instead drew my knowledge heavily from my studious best friend and Spark Notes. That being said, I am currently quarantined in my parents’ house where a stack of my high school “faux reads” gather dust in the basement. I decided to tackle my abandoned scholastic literary foes — which brings me to my reckoning with The Turn of the Screw.
It’s a story within a story, beginning with a man building up a ghostly tale to avid listeners around a fire. He loved a woman, who was a governess, and she told a crazy ghost story about the children she looked after who were affected by “horrors.” The meat of the story is told from the unnamed governess’ perspective, and it might be more stream-of-conscious than this review. Essentially, the male guardian of two orphaned children hires a governess to care for the children in his far away country estate. The governess believes the children to be positively cherubic and delightful, that is, until she sees ghosts. The governess witnesses two ghostly apparitions of a man and a woman in this big ol’ house and confirms with the housekeeper that the apparitions she sees are in fact both former employees of the estate and lovers who perished sometime before the current governess’ employ. Slowly, but surely the governess convinces herself that the children are essentially possessed by the ghosts — they are no longer innocent, glowing angels, but sinister old souls that need salvation. Or do they?
I think the true mystery lies in the question: ghosts or insanity? While the narrator’s winding thoughts jumbled my brain from time to time, I think the most enjoyable part of this book is tracking the reliability of the narrator. I opened this book expecting a full on ghost haunting and closed it with a psychological paradigm looming in my brain. The ambiguity stunned me in the best way. It’s a short read, but it would make for a fun discussion. (It’s too bad I didn’t participate my high school English class). I recommend to read with at least one other person in order to debate this not so straightforward horror novella.