This novella is ostensibly a ghost story, but much ink has been spilled about whether the ghosts are “real” or whether the person seeing them is insane. Good arguments can be made for both views.
The story begins with friends gathered around a fire swapping ghost stories at Christmas. Douglas, reacting to a particularly effective story about a ghost appearing to a small boy, says he has a story that outdoes that one, a horrible tale about ghosts appearing to two children—two turns of the screw—that is unlike anything he has ever heard. A woman he once knew, his sister’s governess, dead now some twenty years, wrote the account down for him.
The governess, the youngest daughter of a clergyman, went looking for work as a governess out of poverty. She found a gentleman in London, a bachelor who’d been left to raise a niece and nephew after the death of their parents in India. The children were living at a country estate in Essex known as Bly. The uncle didn’t want to be bothered with the children and turned everything having to do with their raising over to the governess. He doesn’t want to hear from her under any circumstances. The children, a boy of ten named Miles and a girl of eight named Flora, were presently in the care of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.
In many ways, it was a choice position. The pay wasn’t bad. She had the run of the children, whom she found charming. However, within days of her arrival at Bly, a letter came from her employer. He’d received a letter from Miles’ headmaster, whom he found “an awful bore.” He wanted the governess to deal with it, but not tell him about it. Miles had been expelled from school. The letter said only that he was an injury to the others.
The governess didn’t mention the letter to Miles. She and the housekeeper agreed that sweet little Miles could not be an injury to others. They simply waited for the boy to say something.
Thus air was already thick with secrets and hidden meanings in speech and actions when the governess saw the man looking out from a window. And again when she later came back to the house for forgotten gloves only to find the same man looking in through the windows. No one else saw him, but from her description, Mrs. Grose identified him as Peter Quint, a former valet of the master’s, who died slipping on ice. The governess decided the man must be a threat to the children yet she said nothing directly to them. The atmosphere of threat intensifies with repeated, fleeting appearances of Quint and later the deceased former governess.
The writing is thick, oppressive and hard to get through. The book seems a favorite of college lit courses if for no other reason than people can argue about the sanity of the governess—who browbeats the poor, illiterate housekeeper—versus the reality of the ghosts. She clutches the children ever closer, forgetting the boy has to go to school somewhere. Both children rebel, openly as well as through subterfuge.
This is a heavy and unhappy read. Some made enjoy it, but I had to fight my way through it.