One of the most seductive of all ghost stories i’ve ever read, Turn of the Screw is not a tale for young people inured to Halloween or Tales from the Crypt. It is a sophisticated and subtle literary exercise in which the author creates a dense, suggestive, and highly ambiguous story, its suspense and horror generated primarily by what the author does NOT say and does not describe. Compelled to fill in the blanks from his/her own store of personal fears, the reader ultimately conjures up a more horrifying set of images and circumstances than anything an author could impose from without.
Written in 1898, this is superficially the tale of a governess who accepts the job of teaching two beautiful, young children whose uncle-guardian wants nothing to do with them. On a symbolic level, however, it is a study of the mores and prejudices of the times and, ultimately, of the nature of Evil. The governess fears that ghosts of the former governess Miss Jessel and her lover, valet Peter Quint, have corrupted the souls of little Flora and Miles and have won them to the side of Evil. The children deny any knowledge of ghosts, and, in fact, only the governess actually sees them. Were it not for the fact that the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, can identify them from the governess’s descriptions, one might be tempted to think that the governess is hallucinating.
The governess is certainly neurotic and repressed, but the existense of evil will always be debatable. The ending, which comes as a shock to the reader, is a sign that such struggles (whether psychological or paranormal) should never be underestimated.
As is always the case with James, the formal syntax, complex sentence structure, and elaborately constructed narrative are a pleasure to read for anyone who loves language, formality, and intricate psychological labyrinths.
Over the years there has been much speculation about the meaning of this story, especially the enigmatic ending. I know what I think, but I won’t give anything away here. Read The Turn of the Screw yourself and be prepared for a scary evening of surprises and perhaps even a sleepless night.