In his Advance of the English Novel (1916), William Lyon Phelps recalls meeting Henry James as a young man and eulogizing about The Turn of the Screw; the author responded, "I meant to scare the whole world with that story". Though written over 100 years ago, this abidingly sinister novella has lost none of its power to chill the blood. An atmosphere of evil clings to its every page. His diabolical subversion of childhood innocence has cast so long a shadow over 20th century horror that it has become a keystone of the genre. It is a melodrama, yet James eschews schlocky effects in favour of a more subtle sense of the uncanny, derived from an ambiguity as to what actually occurs. Nothing is ever stated explicitly. We never learn, for example, exactly what Quint and Jessel have done or how they died, nor do we know whether Miles and Flora truly see the ghosts or whether this is a conviction arising from the governess's mental and emotional derangement. The real reason for Miles's expulsion from school is never made clear. Even at the climactic ending, the reader is left unsure as to what has actually happened.
It is these equivocations that lend The Turn of the Screw its enduring power to disturb and enthral. Its ghosts are at once the spirits of the dead and the dark shades that haunt the human mind. This paradox arises from the literary crossroads at which James sites his fiction. He is both a Victorian writer who, like his peers, believed plot to be “the prime and precious thing” (Preface to the New York edition of The Ambassadors, 1909) and a modernist who pioneered literary realism and was preoccupied by narrative subjectivity. He is the product of a culture fascinated by the supernatural, séances and spirit communication, and also the brother of America’s leading psychologist and a dedicated student of the workings of the unconscious mind. Though in the preface to the New York edition he cites a ghost story told to him by Edward Benson as a primary source, he also draws upon contemporary writings on hysteria — the parallels with Freud’s case-study of ‘Lucy R.’ published in Studies on Hysteria (1895) are especially striking. With great skill and piercing intelligence, James pulls together these opposing trends of thought to create a story that affords two mutually exclusive readings: that which conceives of the governess as a hysterical fantasist is intruded upon by evidence which attests to the ghosts’ reality, whilst the literal interpretation is haunted by its psychoanalytic counterpart.
The Turn of the Screw also displays a thoroughly modern preoccupation with the nature of writing itself. James employs a highly complex, circumlocutory style, repeatedly using the same words in different senses to probe the ambiguities of language. The effect is to recreate in microcosm the contradictions and multiple possibilities that pervade the book at plot level. Its pages are liberally peppered with references to story books, gothic literature, dramatic performances and works of art. In this line of imagery, the governess is figured both as the creator and the reader/viewer of artistic productions, a murky position which undermines her implicit responsibility to act as an objective reporter of facts. In this interpretation, the ghosts are neither real nor the projections of a disordered psyche but metaphors for the effects of writing. As a means of conjuring up spectral semblances, literature is itself a haunted space of which the reader is the victim. The deep-rooted sense of paranoia that arises from reading The Turn of the Screw lies in the conviction that we are ourselves being manipulated without knowing exactly how, by whom or to what end.
“So astonishing a piece of art that it cannot be described.” (Literature, 15th October, 1898).
“This seemingly frail story—with a theme which would surely fail of effect, and might become simply ridiculous in the hands of almost any one of its author's contemporaries—is one of the most moving and... most remarkable works of fiction published in many years.” (The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, 15th October, 1898.)
“The intangible is here painted with a skill little short of the supernatural, and in dealing with these subtleties of the mind the author has produced a tale whose suggestiveness makes the blood bound through the veins with unusual rapidity.” (Chautauquan, 28th March, 1899.)
An exhaustive history of critical interpretations of The Turn of the Screw is available here. Opera fans, meanwhile, may be interested to watch Benjamin Britten's adaptation, performed here by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.