The Short Version: The tale of an unnamed governess who comes to an estate in Bly (outside London) and takes on the charge of two young children. She shortly begins to see ghosts and to question the affect these malevolent creatures may have on her young charges. There’s also a question of her sanity – and the story ends with a deadly exorcism.
The Review: I’ve wanted to read this story for ages. Ever since I missed the Boston Lyric Opera’s first-ever Annex production of Britten’s opera version of the story, I’ve been intrigued. It sounded like the perfect ghost story – short, eerie, unsettling, and just supernatural enough. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that it quite hits the mark on any of those points. Except short.
First, a slight digression: can we start a movement to change the typeface of ‘old’ books? There is something dreadfully sleep-inducing, eye-glazing, downright uncomfortable about the typeface Penguin continues to use in their Classics line. Pick up any copy of Dickens published by Penguin Classics and you’ll see what I mean. Small wonder students regularly fall asleep while reading so-called “great” novels – such a hard and ugly typeface actively forces the mind to rebel. I never realized fonts could be so crucial to the experience, although I suppose those books that say “this book was printed in such-and-such font because it is pleasingly serifed” are saying such things for a reason.
Anyway. This story, specifically. It begins promisingly, with a meta-narrational trick of James and friends waiting to hear this supposedly true story. Hey, the best ghost stories are “based on a true story” – because it adds that slight bit of uncomfortable “what if” to the proceedings – so way to go, Mr. James. I’m already hooked.
The story is now quite known to us – it was even known to James’ readers at the time, as noted by his witty reference to “Udolpho” and some throw-away line where the governess wonders if there’s a crazy relation in the attic. Books like The Mysteries of Udolpho and Jane Eyre, those classic Gothic tales, were already consumed into the general consciousness at that point. Those tropes are even more engrained now – and so this book loses some of its punch.
It also doesn’t help that James seemingly refuses to commit to any actual unsettling moments. Sure, the times when the governess sees the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Quint are moments of sharp clarity and slightly quickened pulse… but there is never any real fear. I never, for a minute, found them to be frightening. Perhaps this is a result of my inoculation to such simple frights – but I of the over-active imagination am still often scared of the shadow in the dark, so I can’t entirely discount that James just never sold me on the frightening nature of these apparitions.
The end of the story is somewhat confusing, as well. It seems as though (in my interpretation, anyway) Quint and Jessel had managed to somehow possess the children – Quint more strongly with Miles but Jessel with Flora as well. The governess manages to defeat Jessel (at the cost of her relationship with Flora) by sending the girl away – but then Quint redoubles his efforts and a struggle with Miles ensues. I just didn’t entirely understand why Miles (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS)
had to die. Was it because Quint’s exorcism was just that powerful that it killed him? Was it something else entirely? I have to assume that Quint’s power over Miles was quite strong – Miles only got more commanding over the course of the story and by the end of it he seemed to almost be flirting with the governess. Quint apparently had quite a history of licentiousness, obviously with Miss Jessel but (as one can infer from conversations when the governess arrives at Bly) with several others as well. He was a ‘bad man’, it seems. This was, perhaps, the most unsettling moment of the novel: seeing the possibility of this young boy suddenly being so much older than his years. But was it possession by a spirit? Was it something else entirely? What were the things he said that got him expelled – were they things told to him by Quint’s ghost?
I think that it is pretty clear (to me anyway) that the children could see the ghosts, the ghosts were real, and the governess was not (as some critical interpretations have put forth) crazy. Why, then, does the whole thing feel rather fleeting and insubstantial? Aside from the novella-sized length, obviously.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I want more from my ghost stories, I’m sorry. I admire James for some of the things he tried here – and if you were telling this story aloud (as, according to the meta-narration, it was originally told to James) it may pack a stronger punch. The best ghost stories can’t be written down – even someone like Stephen King, who writes great horror novels, would admit (I think) that the best ghost stories are the ones you tell at night by candlelight that could just happen to you. But when you put them on paper, they lose something (and conversely, stories like King’s – great on paper – lose something when they move into other forms). I was disappointed by this story, to be honest – but I see why it retains such a place of importance in the pantheon of literary horror.