Today I want to talk to you about a story that’s been adapted many times, I know that doesn’t narrow it down all that much lol. But this was recently adapted by Netflix, into the series The Haunting of Bly Manor (fantastic series, go watch it). At least it was partly adapted by Netflix in this series as the series was more an amalgamation of two of Henry James’ stories.
The story I want to talk to you about today is The Turn of the Screw.
This novella was released in in Colliers Weekly in a serialised format in 1898, it was later collected in the same year by Macmillian and Heinemann.
The story opens with some unnamed characters listening to Douglas who is reading a letter/manuscript from a deceased friend, a former governess. This letter tells the story of the young governess when she was hired by a man who is now in charge of his young nephew and niece after the deaths of their parents, much to his displeasure.
The nephew is at boarding school while the niece is in a country home under the care of Mrs Grose. The governess is given full charge of the children and advised not to bother the uncle with anything to do with them. The governess accepts and moves to the house.
The nephew is expelled from school and returns to the country house, he refuses to speak on the matter. The governess is worried that there is some awful reason behind the expulsion but is still charmed by the young boy. Soon the governess notices that there are a man and woman who she does not know on the grounds, no one else ever sees them. She also learns from Mrs. Grose that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a close relationship and that they both died. This causes her to identify the two strangers as the ghosts of her predecessor and her lover. She also thinks the children are aware of the ghosts.
The niece then leaves the house and is found by the governess by a lake. The governess eventually accuses her of talking to the ghost of Ms Jessel, the niece denies this and demands never to see the governess again. The niece is taken to her uncle and the governess is left alone with the nephew who finally confesses why he was expelled. It becomes apparent that the ghosts were controlling the children.
The ghost of Quint appears again and while the governess tries to protect the nephew she fails and he dies.
I loved this story and I can understand 100% why it has been adapted so many times in so many different ways. It’s a compelling story with interesting characters, a compeling mystery and a good old handful of spooky ghosts and an awesome forboding setting.
Whats not to love?
The story taps into multiple different types of fear, common fears caused by the setting and the feeling of isolation and vulnerability the governess experiences, due to her being told effectively not to bother the person in charge should something happen. She’s instantly put into a strange environment, with odd children (they are pretty odd though its not their fault) in a house physically far away from any help and emotionally distant from any kind of support.
Then we’ve got the obvious supernatural fears in the form of the two ghosts who are effectively manipulating, and trying to hurt children for their own gain. The ghosts themselves also heighten the feeling of isolation and vulnerability both through their backstory, aka something bad happened here before and the fact that the governess is the only one to see the ghosts, she is not believed by the others.
The atmosphere in this story is classic horror all the way, we’ve got our spooky isolated country house, we’ve got our mysterious servants who know more than they say, and we’ve got our wide-eyed noble heroine. The terror that builds up in the atmosphere is wonderfully crafted, the feeling of pervasive dread that starts from before we even see the house and meet the children then steadily increases over the course of the story is effectively delivered.
Lastly, we’ve got some very clear stakes, firstly the governess is threatened by the ghosts and her early motivation is twofold, to prove she’s not mad and to reveal the truth. But then she advances onward and the stakes change to cracking an unsolvable mystery and protecting the children.
Overall, a wonderful story and well worth your time. If a more classical horror isn’t your cup of tea, sometimes the language can be a bit verbose then this is a perfect story for you due to its countless adaptations.