Something Wicked This Way Comes

We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.

But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.

Singing “Oh willow waly” by the tree that weeps with me.

Singing ” Oh willow waly” till my lover return to me.

We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.

A broken heart have I.

Oh willow I die.

Oh willow I die.

The 1898 novella The Turn of the Screwby Henry James, is an off-kilter, chilling experience. The ambiguities of the story have been frankly done to death over the years. Was Miss Giddens a neurotic head case who heard voices and “saw” ghostly apparitions purely from inside her own head, or was she in reality, desperately protecting the souls of the young children in her charge as governess, from agents of pure evil?

“What I then and there took him to my heart for something divine that I have never found to the same degree in any child-his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.” The celestial being she describes in such rapturous tones is one of two charges who have been entrusted to her care as governess, by their absent, and apparently, disinterested uncle. She is relating the story put before us, from some time into the future, when she encounters the children in the country house where they live, and is initially overjoyed with her good luck of finding two such lovely children in an idyllic setting.

But there is a maggoty apple in the Garden of Eden, which begins to make it`s malignant presence felt, oh, so slowly; exquisite in it`s perverse and elliptical approach into the warm, homely hearth of the sanctuary of emotional safety she believes she has found. 

She finds that Miles has been expelled from school for disruptive behaviour, and starts to fleetingly glimpse the vague outlines of strangers from the corner of her vision, and hear voices. Finding that these figures correspond to the children`s deceased previous governess and her disreputable lover, disquiet and unease creep, step by step, into her world like clouds gliding across the face of the sun, bringing shivers and shadows.

Miss Giddens sees conspiracy everywhere: the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, and the children, deny seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary; so Miss Giddens begins to suspect that they are all conspiring against her. 

Quint and Miss Jessel are the governess`s ghostly apparitions – their continued presence in the house denied by all to Miss Giddens, who now believes that they want the children`s souls. Is Miss Giddens a benevolent character, fighting against evil ghosts to protect Miles and Flora, or is she mentally unhinged, with the story more about the governess`s troubled psyche rather than about the spooks and children?

To be honest, everything in this marvellously ambiguous little novella can prove the governess to be mad and to prove that there are indeed ghosts. James deliberately created an irresolvable controversy, by his astute use of ambiguous language to create this much read and much interpreted work of genius. 

James described his story as ” A piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic creation.” It can be seen as a ghost story, pure and simple, or as a case study in the psychological disintegration of a troubled mind. Whatever, it`s clear that it is an unparalleled piece of story telling, and a masterpiece of terror and dread.

4 thoughts on “Something Wicked This Way Comes

  1. A brilliant and insightful article exploring this masterpiece. Its legacy is immense, with Jamesian motifs fuelling many novels and works of celluloid fiction since – though possibly now stretched to breaking point. Regards, Paul


    1. It`s a little piece of pocket sized genius, which proves you don`t need to produce something with the thickness of a brick to be considered great literature.


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