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"Henry James" and "spooky ghosts" might not, at first glance, seem like a match made in heaven.
One is a world-famous writer whose hefty novels (The Portrait of a Lady weighs in at 672 pages) are studies in psychology, who spent most of his career pitting the provincialism and optimism of the American mindset against the world-weary sophistication of the European mindset, and who Encyclopedia Britannica says is "recognized as one of the subtlest craftsman who ever practiced the art of the novel." (Source)
The other is...a spooky ghost. (Boo.)
But like other unlikely combinations—peanut butter and bacon, strawberry and basil, Lady and The Tramp—this one turned out to be amazing.
In fact, The Turn of the Screw is easily one of the most influential—and, yes, terrifying—ghost stories of all time.
Here's what made it so successful: James was in the middle of his career at the point he wrote The Turn of the Screw, and he wrote it on the heels of a couple of failed attempts at writing plays. Being an early master of the psychological deep-dive, though, James wasn't so great at having his characters move around on stage instead of sit in one place and think.
But James learned a few things from his time as an aspiring playwright. What he learned was how to craft a scene and perfect the use of limited POV (so the things occurring were only available to the reader via a given character's viewpoint). And as it turns out, these two tools make for insanely suspenseful storytelling.
The novel follows an idealistic governess as she meets a mysterious man and agrees to go to a secluded country house to take care of his niece and nephew. The man himself will stay in town, and the governess is given strict instructions not to contact him. Ever.
If this setup sounds highly dubious, you're right.
The unnamed governess starts out having a grand old time with her sweet little students. They're so sweet, in fact, she she starts to feel that they have a strange power over her. This would be all fine and dandy, however, if she didn't also start to see mysterious people prowling around the country house. Creeped out, she describes them to the housekeeper, only to be told that the people she's been seeing are long dead.
Our advice to you? Don't read this novel when you're all alone in your house, late at night. We know that The Turn of the Screw sounds harmless—after all, it was written way back in 1898 by a man who's most famous for books about corset-wearing Americans having Very Bad European Vacations.
Remember, however, that you're dealing with the granddaddy of interiority, a man who was so deft at capturing the workings of his characters minds that some of his critics accused him of writing too well. (Source)
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Two words: creepy kids.
When Henry James was on his deathbed, thinking about his lasting legacy, he probably didn't think, "Well, mission accomplished: my work has spawned generations of terrifying tykes."
But that's exactly what The Turn of the Screw did.
The legacy of this novel can be seen in practically every horror movie that involves children—and that, guys, is a lot of horror movies. Many of the classics of the genre focus on freaky children—think Linda Blair and her spinning head in The Exorcist, the horrifying/adorable anti-Christ of The Omen, the ghost-whispering son and the "Come play with us" twins in The Shining, or the seemingly endless Children of the Corn series (a whole town of scary children—armed to the teeth).
The list goes on: the bad seed in The Bad Seed. The tow-headed kiddos in The Village of the Damned. Michael Myers as a six-year-old clown in Halloween. Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son. And let's not forget to talk about Kevin in We Need To Talk About Kevin.
When you strip away all of the extra stuff Hollywood has added on to the original freaky child concept—take away the magic powers and the propensity for violence—what you're really left with is the idea that James presents to us so horrifyingly in his original story: what's truly scary about children is their illusion of innocence, and the idea that underneath those adorable masks, they could know more than we do.
Plus, if that idea wasn't terrifying enough, adults know it's impossible to ever say "I'm scared of that child" or "That child is no good." We're not allowed to do anything but love, cherish, and take care of children. We'd be absolutely defenseless if one of them turned out to be evil because no one would believe us.
James gets right at this terrifying heart of the matter. The nameless governess in The Turn of the Screw loves her little wards, but realizes that there's something off about them. And that is even scarier to her than the fact that she keeps seeing ghosts.
So, no matter how desensitized you are to the images of white-faced children crawling out of wells or TVs, reading The Turn of the Screw is still a genuinely terrifying experience...and one that will make you rethink a career in early education.
The Turn of the Screw, 1999
A recent-ish BBC version, starring Colin Firth.
In a Dark Place, 2006
A recent modern interpretation…
Britten's Turn of the Screw, 2004
Here's the most recent filmed version of the Britten opera, adapted from the story.
Colin "Mr. Darcy" Firth in The Turn of the Screw
Here's the beginning to the 1999 BBC version of the story.
Now, with music!
A snippet of the famed Benjamin Britten opera.
The Others trailer
While not totally derived from The Turn of the Screw, The Others seems to have been influenced by James's story.
The Turn of the Screw on Lost!
The book made a brief guest appearance on the popular TV series.
This one gives us the shivers…
Here's the creepy John Singer Sargent painting that's on our cover of Turn of the Screw (the Penguin Classics edition).
Turn of the Screw e-text
Here's an online version from the ever-useful Project Gutenberg site.
The Henry James Scholar's Guide to Websites
Well, a guide to James-related sites, at least.
A great place to start for online research on Henry James.