Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Collusion in the literary ghost story

The Turn of the Screw? Done! Completed! All behind us! Ah, how much we've learned about writing scary stories! Except...

Did we understand the ending?

To recap: One child, Flora, has become so traumatized by the governess's suspicions about her and the visitants that she has become physically ill. She has been whisked off to London by Mrs. Grose. That leaves the governess alone with Miles (not counting the anonymous, apparently non-interactive household staff)--and she takes the opportunity to try to pry some answers out of him at last. Specifically, she wants to know what he got him expelled from school. In the last portion of the novella, she's gone from thinking the children wholly innocent, to believing they are decidedly not. However she still loves Miles, clearly her favorite now, and her last remaining hope for understanding what has been happening. As she questions him, the specter of Peter Quint appears behind Miles in the window, and then drifts away again. And then...

My sternness was all for his judge, his executioner; yet it made him avert himself again, and that movement made ME, with a single bound and an irrepressible cry, spring straight upon him. For there again, against the glass, as if to blight his confession and stay his answer, was the hideous author of our woe—the white face of damnation. I felt a sick swim at the drop of my victory and all the return of my battle, so that the wildness of my veritable leap only served as a great betrayal. I saw him, from the midst of my act, meet it with a divination, and on the perception that even now he only guessed, and that the window was still to his own eyes free, I let the impulse flame up to convert the climax of his dismay into the very proof of his liberation. "No more, no more, no more!" I shrieked, as I tried to press him against me, to my visitant.

"Is she HERE?" Miles panted as he caught with his sealed eyes the direction of my words. Then as his strange "she" staggered me and, with a gasp, I echoed it, "Miss Jessel, Miss Jessel!" he with a sudden fury gave me back.

I seized, stupefied, his supposition—some sequel to what we had done to Flora, but this made me only want to show him that it was better still than that. "It's not Miss Jessel! But it's at the window—straight before us. It's THERE—the coward horror, there for the last time!"

At this, after a second in which his head made the movement of a baffled dog's on a scent and then gave a frantic little shake for air and light, he was at me in a white rage, bewildered, glaring vainly over the place and missing wholly, though it now, to my sense, filled the room like the taste of poison, the wide, overwhelming presence. "It's HE?"

I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. "Whom do you mean by 'he'?"

"Peter Quint—you devil!" His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. "WHERE?"

They are in my ears still, his supreme surrender of the name and his tribute to my devotion. "What does he matter now, my own?—what will he EVER matter? I have you," I launched at the beast, "but he has lost you forever!" Then, for the demonstration of my work, "There, THERE!" I said to Miles.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

Wow. I didn't remember that ending at all from my previous reading, whenever it was. I really had no idea what was going to happen, but Miles's death was a surprise even so. This time through, I think I'd come to believe (with the governess) that the children were nearly as sinister as the visitants themselves. I've possibly seen too many devil-child movies, and the sudden "ugliness" of Flora's language, when she tells Mrs. Grose how much she hates the governess, gives her a certain Linda Blair aspect. Plus, there's the word "dispossessed," in the very last line, significantly set off by commas. Google tells me "dispossessed" can mean both "exorcised" (as of a demon) and "homeless." Very interesting. As if Quint is a kind of parasite (cf Alien, Aliens, Alien3, etc.) that kills its host when removed. And it seems as if the actual parasite is love, in a perhaps unspeakable form.

But it isn't exactly clear. So when I finished the story I did something I'm not proud of. I consulted the introduction to the Signet collection of James's stories I happen to have. Even in my high school days, that felt like cheating. And may I say, just in passing: Why give away the ending of the story in the introduction? Does this not announce flat-out that anyone reading this stories cannot possibly be doing so for pleasure? Why not just title the Introduction "Helpful Hints to Get You Through Another School Assignment"? Perhaps an Afterword, or notes section, would provide assistance if needed, while maintaining that old books can still be read for the same reasons we read new ones?

Anyway. R. W. B. Lewis, writing in 1983, tells us that *nobody* really understands the ending (although that was nearly 30 years ago; perhaps experiments at CERN have since settled the matter). Are the ghosts real, and responsible for Miles's death, or are they just figments of the governess's deranged imagination? Lewis writes:

Henry James's histrionic genius would never settle for an either-or account of experience, especially of the kind established by many critics of "The Turn of the Screw": it is all the ghosts' wicked responsibility, or all the governess's doing. Peter Quint and the governess collaborate, by a dreadful collision of psychic energy, in the death of young Miles.

That sounds fine to me. James is a great writer, and a great ghost story would not give us pure victimization as a spectacle. Nor would it be a mere "trick" in which the narrator wakes up at the end--possibly inside a mental ward.

So here's the lesson for fiction writers today: in the literary ghost story, the events should come about through collaboration between human and ghost. That's not to say our human hero should "really" be "bad" in some way, or even directly responsible for the bad stuff. But something about their psychology, their reactions to events and/or certain secret desires should combine with the occult to drive the outcomes. This is the way to make your story truly surprising and disturbing. The hero must invite the vampire in, and get more than he or she bargained for. One thing is clear from this ending: the governess's pride in her own strength in the face of terror have backfired. When she stands up to Quint directly, shielding Miles from him, that's when Miles dies.

But was this pride the cause? Not really, or not only. We think we know what we're doing, and we don't. That is scary.

1 comment:

Devon S. said...


I found your blog via your review of The Hidden Reality over at the Millions (I reviewed it too, at, and I just wanted to say I love your Borrowed Fire series. I wish such thoughtful (and useful) analyses were more common.