The Turn of the Screw


 Halloween is right around the corner, meaning it’s time for costumes, candy, and scary stories. Some stations play movies like Children of the Corn and Friday the 13th leading up to the holiday. Libraries will display frightening books. And children will be extra jumpy as they anticipate jump scares.

I don’t celebrate Halloween, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a scary movie or book, and one of the best in sheer dread and mounting terror is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. He wrote it during a deep depression; after the audience booed one of his plays off stage, he took refuge in a rambling house and began work on the story he is best known for. He published it serially. I can’t even imagine how it felt to get to the end of a chapter and be left wondering what came next, what would happen! And then that last line—I remember the first time I read this story in college. I was not prepared for the way the story ended. I read the last paragraph a few times just because the ending was so abrupt.

For those who haven’t read it, The Turn of the Screw is about a young unnamed governess, 20, who goes to watch two children, Miles, 10, and Flora, 8. They are under the care of their uncle who wants nothing to do with them, and the governess is never to contact the uncle for any reason. In the household, there is a housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and a servant, Luke. Otherwise, they are all on their own.

Miles’ boarding school has kicked him out, though no one knows why. The governess decides that because Miles looks angelic, he must have been falsely accused, and falls in love with both children. They are quick to learn and obey her. It’s not long, though, before a dark presence makes itself known. Peter Quint, and shortly after his appearance, Miss Jessel shows up, too. She was the old governess, and it’s not long before the present governess discovers they’d had an illicit affair and have both died.

The governess tries to protect the children from these ghosts, but fails… Quint lures Miles out in the middle of the night, and Flora rows to an island to be with Jessel. Though the governess goes to great lengths to keep her charges safe, eventually the ghosts communicate with the children by blinding the governess’s eyes, so she doesn’t even know when the spirits are there.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but James’s greatest skill was creating atmosphere. The story can drag in parts and could definitely have used an editor, but if you try it, it’s best to do so with all the lights on and your feet away from the edge of the bed. You’ll get lost in James’s Victorian world in no time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol Starkley lives in New Jersey with her husband, three daughters, and numerous pets. She likes to read, write, bake, and dabble with the clarinet. She also infrequently blogs.

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