Autumn Ghost Stories

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Fall Equinox may be a few weeks away, but once my birthday arrives in late August (and perhaps as a consequence of receiving school supplies for presents as a child along with my many years of teaching), it’s a signal that the summer is officially over; and with it the end of trash reading (at least for awhile). Sandy beaches are a bit overrated, and I prefer them in the cold weather anyway.  I don’t do much lounging by the proverbial pool these days either, but I have been hiking once a week. Yesterday was truly glorious.


It will only get better as the temperature drops and the leaves turn brown—all that stuff that feeds my Gothic soul!

It’s been a productive summer. I finished my second horror novel, currently languishing in Amazon obscurity. Do check it out. I started two new stories on Wattpad which I will eventually self-publish (yes, I’ve caught that bug along with millions of other folks). And I’ve been reading a lot. And after all the water ice and other childish treacle I’ve ingested, I’m ready to resume a nutritious diet of fine literature.

So I begin by putting on my academic cloak and resuming my Gothic reading challenge. This time I turn to the Henry James classic The Turn of the Screw—a provocative title to say the least. I’ve watched, and loved, the film adaptation The Innocents, but had never read the book. Because good books require good bindings, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my leather bound Easton Press copy I found on eBay. At last it came and I dug into its deliciously dense, admirably ambiguous prose. Peter Straub of Ghost Story admits his indebtedness to James, even naming a character after him. The influence is there in Shirley Jackson’s work as well.

Maybe if I had read the book first I’d have sided with the governess about the existence of the real ghosts, but after watching the film and reading the book , I can’t imagine the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as being anything but the overwrought and hysterical imaginings of the governess (this term unreliable narrator gets tossed around ad nauseam). I imagine Henry James just set out to write a damn good ghost story, and succeeded. My only criticism is that it ends without returning to the original framing device. I would have enjoyed a post-script about the fall-out that ensued after Miles’ death, although we are told a bit about that in the beginning.

Creepy kids

I was so thrilled with the book and the richness of the language, that I immediately watched the film again. It’s truly a masterpiece of writing (Truman Capote), directing, cinematography, and acting. Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens isn’t the young (presumably) virgin the governess in the book is, but no one plays a better “old maid” than she. And if we are to go with the sexual repression projection interpretation (and the film certainly does) Kerr makes that believable. The book certainly hints at it too in her earthy foil, Mrs. Grose’s observations of the devilish goings-on of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel at Bly.

Miles and his alter ego, Peter Quint.

The Innocents is certainly not the first creepy kid horror sub-genre, but Village of the Damn, also starring the same boy actor as Miles, might have been. It will continue to rear its sweet little head again and again because, let’s face it, kids (like clowns) can be scary. The most disturbing moments in the film are undoubtedly the notorious kissing scenes, one where the boy Miles takes a goodnight kiss with his governess to uncomfortable extremes (Kate Bush was so traumatized she wrote a song about it) and the other at the end when Miss Giddens returns the favor at the end. I remember the shock I felt when I first watched it, compounded by the unsettling look little Miles gives her afterwards, as if he knows what she looks like without her shimmy. It’s truly twisted, and yet remains innocent.

Equally creepy Flora screams like a banshee when Miss Giddens forces her to acknowledge the ghost of Miss Jessel on the lake, making the audience wonder just who is abusing whom. We don’t hear the obscene words she spouts, but our dirty minds can guess. Only the cleverest writers/directors make the reader/viewer a co-conspirator in the drama. Did she learn them from watching Quint and Miss Jessel? Is Miss Giddens turning into Miss Jessel because she secretly wants to be ravished by Quint? One wishes for the uncle to arrive and inflict some patriarchal order to this madness, but we know he never will. Is the governess, like the narrator from Hill House (their backgrounds are indeed similar) losing her marbles because she is away from home for the first time? Is she dying for attention, namely male attention? We can only wonder.

Lilly Flora – angel or devil?

It’s interesting to note that Pamela Franklin, who plays Flora, grows up to be the teenage bitch who turns on Miss Brody (and does a quite graphic nude scene to boot), and starred in a few B-horror flicks including The Legend of Hell House, which is at least partly based on The Haunting of Hill House, bringing all this insanity full circle in a way.

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