The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (a real ghost story)

I was keen to read another Henry James novel after finishing The Portrait of a Lady earlier this year and having very mixed feelings toward it.  So I was very grateful to the wonderful Bethany from Words, Words, Words (definitely worth having a look at this great blog), who sent me a copy of The Turn of the Screw after she had finished with it.

This novella is your classic ghost story. It begins with a group of people sitting around a fire in an old house, on Christmas Eve, telling each other ghost stories. One of these people then agrees to tell the others a story he was once told by a woman he once greatly admired. The scene is set, a few nights later they all settle in to listen to his tale.

The story then switches into the first person, and the remainder of the book is written from the perspective of a governess who recounts her experiences as a live in governess at a property in the country called Bly. She is hired by a well-to-do man who has become the carer for his niece and nephew after their parents have passed away, leaving them orphans. He has sent his charges to live in the country, and he hired this governess to care for them, giving her the only condition that she is in no way to contact him about the children. As she settles into the house and routine, and falls in love with the children, she begins to experience increasingly strange occurrences and see apparitions. It begins with seeing a sinister man standing on their roof top and later staring in through a window, and later she sees an equally sinister woman staring longingly at the children. She becomes increasingly disturbed when she believes that the children can see them too, and she determines to save them from any evil influences in the house.

The ghost story is so perfectly formed that I was totally caught up in it, and totally freaked out. I read it in almost one sitting, and was surprised to see that 2.5 hours had passed in barely the blink of an eye.

The language is typical of James; there are very long sentences that often go off on tangents, and it can be hard to lose the train of thought without concentrating on what is being said. Having said that, I actually love language like that; that old fashioned language that winds all over the place, but I am sure that it is a matter of taste.

I have been surprised to discover that there is actually debate about whether this a true ghost story or the governess was actually just going crazy and making it all up in her psychotic mind. I personally think that anyone who thinks that the governess was crazy is crazy themselves. It couldn't be clearer to me that these ghosts were 'real' and they meant harm.

What made it all the more real to me was that the ghosts weren't white floaty things, making things mysteriously move about and all that typical ghost like behaviour. Instead that were just the reincarnation of certain people's evil intentions during life. They behaved liked real people and looked like real people, and they were all the more scary because of it.

To further emphasise the creepiness of the occurrences in this house, I loved the way that James described the children. You are never quite sure what they are really thinking, and what really motivates their angelic behaviour. It makes the children themselves seem sinister, adding to the creepiness of the story.

The tension that James created made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I loved being freaked out by a book. This is one that I would definitely recommend.


What kind of read is this?
It is a ghost story, and a scary one. Also, although it is a very small book, it takes longer to read than you might think simply because of the complexities of James's writing.

Do I recommend this book?
Yes, especially for those of you who like some real tension. I am not usually a reader of mysteries, but this was tense.

Do I recommend that you buy this book?
Yes I do. It is creepy enough to warrant a second or third (or more) reading. I feel like it is one of those books that the more times you read it, the more things you will pick up.

Star Rating

7 / 8

Brilliant, couldn't put it down. Recommend that you buy it.


  1. Hi there. I'm stopping in from the hop. Very nice blog!

  2. I had to read this for school, which might have aided the fact I hated it. I went more down the 'she was crazy' route which is a possibility depending on how much you believe in ghosts. I found that the only interesting part - was it real or was she crazy and the never really knowing which.

    Have you seen the TV drama of it? I think they've actually made another one recently which I didn't see but I saw the earlier one which'd been made in the late ninties I believe... with Colin Firth in it briefly.

  3. I reviewed this a couple of months ago and while I liked the story and found it creepy in places (esp the bit where the man was standing at the window) I couldnt get to grips with Henry James's writing.

  4. This sounds fantastic! Thanks for the review. I just put it on my TBR list.

  5. I did enjoy this book and felt that the tension was done really well. I did pick up on some ambiguity in what was happening for the governess. For me this uncertainty added to the tension. But absolutely, it is undoubtedly a ghost story. And a very good one at that :)

  6. I'm very glad you enjoyed this so much! I was never going to finish it - so it's good to know I could pass it on to someone who loved it!

  7. Just finished the book and I agree with you, that the ghosts were real and this is one scary story. But I couldn't get into Henry James style though. :-)


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