Henry James' haunting and poignant story was first published in 1898, and has been stimulating heated literary discussion ever since. Is the book a simple Gothic ghost story or a psychological thriller? Is the narrator a reliable witness or mentally unbalanced? Did the disturbing and hideous events actually occur, or are they the perverse fruits of a disordered mind? The depth and ambiguity of the text has made James' work not only an exciting and intriguing read, but one of the most critically debated works of American literature.
The story starts conventionally enough with friends sharing ghost stories 'round the fire on Christmas Eve. One of the guests tells about a governess at a country house plagued by supernatural visitors. But in the hands of Henry James, the master of nuance, this little tale of terror is an exquisite gem of sexual and psychological ambiguity. Only the young governess can see the ghosts; only she suspects that the previous governess and her lover are controlling the two orphaned children (a girl and a boy) for some evil purpose. The household staff don't know what she's talking about, the children are evasive when questioned, and the master of the house (the children's uncle) is absent. Why does the young girl claim not to see a perfectly visible woman standing on the far side of the lake? Are the children being deceptive, or is the governess being paranoid? By leaving the questions unanswered, The Turn of Screw generates spine-tingling anxiety in its mesmerized readers.