Henry James’s novella, “The Turn of the Screw”, has been referred to by scholars as the author’s “most puzzling and controversial work" (Curtis n.p.). Literary critic Harold Bloom has described James’s oeuvre as being marked with “great intelligence and energy," with a moral innocence that confirmed his “ripe unconsciousness of evil…, one of the most beautiful signs by which we know him" (4). In James’s work, wrote Bloom, the reader gets the sense that the writer drew inspiration for his characters and their mild troubles from a turn-of-the-century “community [in] which misery and extravagance, and either extreme of any sort, were equally absent" (4). Yet “Turn of the Screw”, a work from the latter part of James’s writing career and his life, does not fit comfortably or neatly within such an admiring and benevolent description. “Turn of the Screw” is curious precisely because compared to other works by Henry James, the author exhibits a ripe consciousness of evil and of profound psychological disturbance.
Using the genre of the ghost story, credited as originating with M.R. James, a contemporary of Henry James, the author skillfully provokes the reader’s anxieties by evoking the psychological mechanisms of the horror of the unknown. The effect, as is always the case with a well-crafted ghost story or something in a similar genre, is that existential questions rise to the surface of the reader’s consciousness, allowing the reader of “Turn of the Screw” and the writer to enter into a dialogue about real life through the medium of seemingly fantastic events. For all of the skill he demonstrates in writing the ghost story “Turn of the Screw”, his first and only experiment with the ghost story genre, James also simultaneously subverts the narrative form of this genre, creating still another level of psychological suspense in “Turn of the Screw” and a level of narrator-related sophistication. Both his use of the ghost story form and genre and his subversion of it will be explored in this article.
On the surface, “Turn of the Screw” by Henry James has all the makings of a good old-fashioned ghost story, adhering closely to the conventions of this genre as they were established by their progenitor, M.R. James (Cox xxii). M.R. James is reputed as having been the originator of the ghost story as a genre, publishing his first story of this type in 1880 (Cox xiii), nearly 20 years before the serial-format publication of Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” (Curtis 7). According to Cox, M.R. James established the basic conceptual and narrative framework to which all subsequent ghost stories have conformed (xxii). Cox explains the formula by saying that the ghost story is an “unlooked-for revelation of an alien order of things, … a wholly malevolent Beyond, linked to our world by a perplexing and dangerous logic," a logic which is activated by “a chance word, an unthinking action, curiosity, [or] simply being in the wrong place at the right time" (Cox xxii). The notion of the “wholly malevolent Beyond" provides a thematic framework both for the genre of “Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and continuity that “is matched by a consistent, almost formulaic technical approach" (Cox xxii).
Cox, citing Collins, explains the basic trajectory of the ghost story formula in the following manner: The reader of “Turn of the Screw” by Henry James is “introduced to the actors in a placid way… going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings…." (xxii). Then, gradually, one safeguard after another is removed, leaving both the characters we have come to like and ourselves, the readers, exposed and vulnerable (Cox xxvi). Eventually, all barriers between safety and threat collapse entirely, as “into this calm environment… the ominous thing put[s] out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage" (Cox xxii). Cox insists that the development of the characters is secondary in importance to the provocation of palpable fear. In fact, the best characterization is likely to be of the ghost, which is a figure that represents a “natural source of revulsion" and causes horror, stimulating the reader’s primal fears and anxieties, which have been largely unconscious to him or her until the encounter with the text (Cox xxvi). As Cox observes, “atmosphere and incident are more important… for [the reader] need[s] to feel that there is nothing peculiar to the protagonists that singles them out for supernatural violation" (Cox xxvi). In other words, we are all vulnerable to being haunted by our own kind of ghost. The physical presence of the ghost in the story”Turn of the Screw” by Henry James is but a representative figure for our own psychological haints.