Henry James – The Turn of the Screw, 1898

A timeless ghost story with an ambiguous ending. Henry James was wonderful at building atmosphere and suspense. On writing horror, James noted:

“Make (the reader) think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. My values are positively all blanks, save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness… proceed to read into them more or less fantastic figures.” 

In the first chapter of The Turn of the Screw, James also reflects on the almost universal appeal of a chillingly good scary tale. Consider the following quote:

“It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”

“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.

He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful — dreadfulness!”

“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women.”  

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

The more dreadful the tale, the better. Also, any tale while features children as the focus of the haunting, or children in general acting creepy/possessed/homicidal, never fails to increase the spine-tingle factor. A familiar theme in modern horror, The Turn of the Screw is one of the earliest examples, and very well executed.

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” 

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

There is also the ambiguity – is there really a haunting, or is the governess insane? James allows us to draw our own conclusions, framing it as a ghost story but creating enough room for doubt to leave the reader wondering – and to keep the reader returning to the novel again and again. 

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