"It's beyond everything," he insists. "Nothing at all that I know touches it . . . . [f]or general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."(p. 2.) Though instinctually I credit Douglas, and although (spoiler alert!) the death of little Miles at the story's conclusion lends credence to Douglas' characterization, I didn't see "the horror" myself.
Let's put to one side the fact that, after mustard gas in the trenches of WWI, and gas chambers in the Holocaust, and killing fields in Cambodia, and the torture chambers into which Chile's disappeared vanished, and - well, you get the idea - a pair of ghosts in a country house (even a pair of ghosts in a country house who kill a little boy) are far, far from the known human extreme of "general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."
Of course, Henry James was writing before the generally uncannily ugly, horrible and painful twentieth century. Nonetheless, he set himself a high standard, even for his own time. I'm not convinced that he met it.
Throughout The Turn of the Screw, the governess reacts with revulsion and terror to the prospect that the children, Miles and Flora, can see the ghosts. ("They KNOW - it's too monstrous: they know, they know!" cries the governess when she concludes that Flora has seen the ghost of Miss Jessel (p. 41).)
But though the governess is terrified, I, as a reader, was not. The ghosts didn't seem to be doing anything objectively scary: they manifest on the tower and by the lake, they occupy the staircase and peer in the window. At one point, the governess hypothesizes that the ghosts may lure the children into harm by tempting them to climb the tower or wade into the lake (p. 66); such a stratagem would have scared me. But the governess' larger concerns seem related to the vaguely bad characters that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel displayed when alive. That said, the only "bad" thing positively attributed to Quint and Jessel is a violation of class boundaries: "'SHE was a lady . . . . And he so dreadfully below,' said Mrs. Grose." (p. 44.) Hardly horror.
Of course, if the ghosts were frightening Miles and Flora, then the governess' fear would have been justified - and infectious. But plainly neither Miles nor Flora is scared. For example, when Miss Jessel first appears, Flora turns her back to the ghost and calmly proceeds to play with twigs by the side of the lake (p. 40).
Indeed, at one point, Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, hazards the possibility that the children like seeing the ghosts; the governess wildly dismisses the notion:
"Dear, dear - we must keep our heads! And after all, if she [Flora] doesn't mind it - !" [Mrs. Grose] even tried a grim joke. "Perhaps she likes it!"
"LIKES such things - a scrap of an infant!"(p. 43.)
Despite the force of her assertion, I couldn't help concluding that the governess' assumptions about children's capacities for liking "the dead restored" (p. 64) are a bit aggressive. If the ghosts are, as the story posits, apparitions of people with whom the children had positive relations, then why the children should automatically apprehend danger in their restoration from the beyond seems unclear.
Publishing only six years after The Turn of the Screw, J.M. Barrie makes this precise point in Peter Pan and Wendy:
Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event happened, that when they were in the wood they met their dead father and had a game with him.(p. 8). J.M. Barrie's observation resonates with accuracy; the governess' behavior rings with hysteria.
Consequently, I spent so much time wondering why the governess was assuming that the ghosts were a threat to the children, that I failed to be frightened. Rather than feeling caught in the building suspense of the story, I felt distanced and analytical; my "anthropologist" switch got flipped, and I began asking epistemological questions about how the governess knew what she claimed to know. (I found no satisfaction in the governess' propensity to answer Mrs. Grose's occasional outbursts of "[H]ow do you know?" with responses like, "I know, I know, I know!" (p. 35.)) As a tale of dread, the story failed to put the screws to me.
None of which is to say that I didn't find The Turn of the Screw fascinating and absorbing. But it did confirm that Henry James is no Stephen King. While that discovery doesn't particularly disappoint me, I do feel relief that Douglas won't ever have a chance to read Stephen King: Douglas couldn't handle him.
(Image of Deborah Kerr as the governess, and Peter Wyngarde as the ghost of Peter Quint, in The Innocents, a film based on The Turn of the Screw, from The Guardian)