Next up in my challenge is that trickiest of genres to pull off: the ghost story. In the art of scaring there is a delicate balance between the said and the unsaid, the shown and the suggested, which if tipped off centre shatters the illusion of horror. In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James conducts a masterclass in this balancing act of fear and suspense.
The premise behind James’s fiction is simple enough and not unfamiliar. A young, naive governess is sent to care for two orphaned children in an isolated country mansion; at this point alarm bells are already starting to clang and you can almost hear the step of a mad woman in the attic (Charlotte Bronte has a lot to answer for). Ominous too is her mysterious employer’s request that she not bother him with any news of his young charges (say no girl! I mentally scream at the book). As the governess makes the journey to her remote new home, the scene is set for blood-chilling bumps in the night.
James, however, is much too subtle for this. The portent-laden opening is followed by a protracted lull, laying a blanket of false security over readers. The children are charming beyond words, the housekeeper is welcoming and friendly, the house and grounds are beautiful – everything is, in short, too good to be true.
The beauty of James’s prose is that it builds an almost claustrophobic tension, a calm that is heavy with foreboding. Small mysteries are loaded with significance, creating the uncomfortable feeling that they will return to (quite literally) haunt the protagonist. Before long, sure enough, ghostly presences have been witnessed by the governess, a scandalous affair between the valet and the previous governess – both, of course, dead – has been uncovered, and a sinister threat to the children is feared. Another of James’s brilliantly subtle touches is to never specify this dreaded evil; it remains too horrific to be fully articulated by the governess and is thus all the more chilling for readers.
The term ‘unreliable narrator’ might well have been invented to describe James’s governess, whose tale leaves readers in just enough doubt about the truth of the events she describes. The novella’s supernatural occurrences are only ever witnessed by the governess and we have only her account to testify to what has happened, leading a whole school of critics to speculate that the entire affair is purely in the mind of the narrator. Such a theory appears to have considerable support, as there are numerous incidents that don’t quite add up and the governess is hardly portrayed as the most stable character.
But perhaps the most disturbing element of the tale is James’s depiction of the two seemingly angelic children and their governess’s troubling relationship with this pair of apparent cherubs. There is an eerie quality to these ‘perfect’ youngsters right from the start; all blonde hair, courtesy and unnatural intelligence, they are both too charming and too knowing for their own good. There is also an increasing discomfort that arises from the governess’s overwhelming and at times almost sinister attachment to her charges. Is this a concerned young woman innocently endeavouring to protect two children or a dangerously unstable tutor?
The real point is that we can never know. Had James specified whether the horror was external or inwardly imagined, his unique and spine-tingling ghost story would have lost its potency. As with all the best chillers, James keeps us guessing right to the end.
Next on the list … Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.