Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has always had a scary plot – no matter how interpreted. The first time I read this short book, I worried about ghosts creeping up to the window; later in college, the specter of a mad woman governess who imagined ghosts seemed just as thrilling. Thanks to a friend who recommended Emma Thompson’s interpretation of The Turn of the Screw on Audible, I am again convinced the ghosts are real, and the audiobook has me checking the locks on windows and doors.
Emma Thompson easily portrays the new governess to two angelic children in a remote English country house. She becomes convinced that the children are conspiring with a pair of evil ghosts, former employees at the estate – a valet and a previous governess. In life, the two had been discharged as illicit lovers, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible abuse. The governess is convinced she must protect her two charges; in her effort to shield them, she traumatizes the little girl and kills the little boy. The reader must decide whether the ending is the result of a governess gone mad or the evil ghosts are real.
The story is full of dark “dreadfulness,” and Emma Thompson easily switches from the well rounded vowels of the governess to the high- pitched voices of the children. Emma Thompson’s terror becomes tangible as she describes the apparitions, and you can almost imagine the silent screams of the ghosts. But when, as the housekeeper, she uses a quavering voice to deny them, the first hints of the governess’s possible mental instability appear. Which terror is real – ghosts or madness or possibly both?
After listening to the story, I agree with Brad Leithauser, the editor of The Norton Book of Ghost Stories: “Consigned to everlasting misery, the damned are restless in their perdition. Some of them are too nasty for hell, and they sometimes get in among us.”
If a book club is looking for a classic to discuss, The Turn of the Screw would be a great selection – especially around Halloween.