|The ghost of Peter Quint in a scene from The Innocents, based on The Turn of the Screw.|
In other words, she saw a ghost!
I really don't know if anyone reads Henry James anymore. To be sure, he's an acquired taste. Even among students of English Lit in various campuses across the country, he's probably hopelessly ignored now in the 21st century. And, much as I've enjoyed his novels, his prose can be aggravating to wade through. Sentences strewn with multiple commas, and asides, for which the perceptive reader, providing an intense concentration, illuminates, as it were, the depths beyond the surface of the events related to the passage of plot, a deeper understanding of...well, you get my drift here. Henry James is tough to read!
That said, his short novel The Turn of the Screw really is one of the best ghost stories you'll have the pleasure of enjoying once you give into its style. In keeping with the season, I thought it would be fun (whaaa? reading Henry James is fun???) to revisit his most famous ghost story set in an isolated manor deep within the English countryside.
The plot is relatively a simple one. A young governess is hired by the uncle of two small children, Miles and Flora, to oversee their care and education at his isolated country estate. The conditions of the governess's employment is that she, under no circumstances, communicates with, or otherwise disturb him, regarding their care. She is to take full charge over their well-being completely, leaving him free to pursue his bachelor ways alone in London. The job seems to be a delightful one for our young governess, until the ghosts of the prior governess, Miss Jessel, and Peter Quint, the late groundskeeper, appear. We learn that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel enjoyed a sexual relationship before their untimely deaths. A relationship contaminated with hints of cruelty and violence. Convinced that their spirits have returned to corrupt the innocent children under her care, our young governess steels herself to confront the evil spirits and save her young charges.
There is a lot of psychological meat for the reader, and scholars, to chew on here. Are the ghosts real? Are they figments of the governess's imagination? Has her infatuation with her distant employer influenced her perception of her young charges? Are the children truly innocent, or have they been corrupted already by the late Peter Quint and Miss Jessel?
James has a ball with this story. It's steeped in gothic trappings, and a sly reference to The Mysteries of Udolpho (a gothic classic that I'll probably get around to reading at some point) is made. It's been adapted for film several times, and even had a major influence on a Dark Shadows plot-line. I think it's worth reading for anyone who considers themselves a horror fan. A good old fashioned ghost story, no matter how literate, never goes out of style. And this one is one of the best.