Reading Ghosts

by Charlotte Reads Classics

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Wasn’t he looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn’t see?

Ghost stories, horror films – whatever it is, nothing is more unsettling than creepy children. There is even a Phones 4 You advert on at the moment that involves a ghostly girl that I mute whenever it comes on the TV.

The Turn of the Screw involves a governess, her two charges, and the ghosts of a previous governess and manservant. What really got me about the ghost story itself was that you are never quite sure whether the ghosts are a trick by the children or whether the governess is mad. The reader doesn’t know which, and a lot of the time the characters in the story don’t know either. The experience of reading about the ghosts appearing was unsettling – particularly the first time one appears. The atmosphere is incredibly well written – the ghost appears, looking entirely human, standing on top of a tower looking directly at the governess who is walking in the garden. The way James described how the ghost was staring unrelentingly made me imagine it so clearly I got chills. I love reading ghost stories (despite being completely unable to watch horror films) because physically they give you something reading other genres can’t; I can swoon about romantic heroes, laugh at jokes and cry at unhappy tales but nothing heightens all the senses like a ghost story does.

This novella put me very much in the mindset of reading The Woman in Black, which I loved. I think the element of both that draw you in are the fact that the story is being read from something written down. In this case the story has been passed to the unnamed narrator by someone who was given a autobiography of the governess’ experiences. In The Woman in Black the story is being written/ told to the narrator’s family. I suppose the role of the narrator in the ghost story is to add some authenticity to the account. There is also something dangerous about listening to/ reading a ghost story – like you are being let into something secret, something irrational, but something weirdly familiar.

I thought The Turn of the Screw was quite different to The Portrait of a Lady, which is the only other Henry James novel I have read. One is more Victorian, the other more romantic. The contrast between the two, and the experience of reading both make me convinced I would like to read more Henry James.

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