It is claimed by some to be the very first horror novel ever penned. Set in Victorian England, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is the perfect embodiment of the traditional haunted house story.
The story follows a governess charged with the care of two children left alone in Bly, the old family manor house, along with the maid. On the surface, the children seem to be little angels. In fact, the first half of the story so poignantly points out their alluring innocence, that by the time the screw turns, everyone is heartbroken to know the ending is just as they feared. The children are possessed by the evil spirits of the house; spirits that are determined to bring little Miles and Flora to the other side with them and possess their souls forever. At least, that’s what some people think. Yet others argue that the governess is simply going mad from the isolation.
When one reads a horror novel, it is important to remember the time and environment in which it was written. By todays standards, this is no great thriller. The writing alone is enough to put anyone with even a morsel of ADHD crawling up the walls, or falling asleep. Even as a reader, it was difficult to power through the long drawling old English in which is was written.
But if you allow yourself to relax into the cadence of that era, you begin to see what an intriguing plot emerges. The setting is perfect: Isolation, old English manors, candle light. As I mentioned in my post How Environment Shapes Horror, you must imagine what these stories were like in the time period in which they exist.
A ghost story is much scarier if there are no electric lights, no one around for miles, and the dark corners of the room are never fully illuminated. Now imagine what the readers of The Turn of the Screw must have felt as they clung to their tiny books, reading by the flicker of candle light.
This story has seem much attention recently, with a movie coming out called The Turning.
As well as the second season of The Haunting, called The Haunting of Bly Manor.
I’m always a sucker when it comes to haunted house stories. It’s like the house itself is a major character in the story. The Turn of the Screw offers a dose of pure Victorian ghost story with just a touch of psychological thriller. If reading through it proves to be difficult, you can listen to an audio version available here:
As far as ghost stories go, The Haunting of Hill House still holds the number one spot in my heart, but The Turn of the Screw is definitely worth the read to any horror novel fan.