Henry James and the Ghost Story

This is a post for our Turn of the Screw (TOTS) readalong and will not contain any spoilers. I will give a SPOILER WARNING for any outgoing links.

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me, thinking thoughts about Henry James while watching you play

Henry James wrote a lot; he’s best known for his novels and short novels like TOTS, but also for big literary bricks like Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. He’s a literary giant, and is treated like one: fair enough. But he wrote more than one ghost story like TOTS, and since the literary world loves to argue about everything, often it is argued that his ghost stories aren’t “horror” or “genre” stories at all; they’re simply literary metaphors. Yeah, okay. Agree to disagree, and all that. If you’ve ready absolutely anything by James, you’ll notice that he really loves ambiguity, multi-faceted perspectives, and different interpretations of character motives; regarding TOTS specifically, James is both writing a straightforward ghost story and inviting us to question the heck out of it, but he isn’t rejecting either approach, and neither should we.

I really appreciated this article at Conceptual Fiction for arguing that Henry James can be both a literary giant and a horror writer. The essayist Ted Gioia emphasizes that we need to relax and face the fact that he was a horror writer, even if he didn’t write solely horror: “If you cut through all the posturing and theorizing of later critics, and return to what James himself said about his work, we find that he had no problem labeling these works as “ghost stories.” Even more noteworthy: if you read James’s prefaces, which represent his most important contribution to literary criticism, you can even find material for a very sophisticated defense of genre fiction.”

SPOILER WARNING for this link: The Guardian has a really good review of sorts for The Turn of The Screw that emphasizes how terrifying it is, and mentions some of the movie adaptations, if you’re interested in those.

As for whether Henry James believed in the supernatural, I have no idea because Henry James a big literary tease in EVERY ASPECT OF HIS LIFE. However, his dad (also named Henry) supposedly saw a ghost this one time, and his brother William founded the American Society of Psychical Research, so even if James didn’t believe in it, he had a lot of pro-supernatural influences in his life.

Speaking of William, there’s a write-up here on his beliefs on life after death. Apparently he promised his friends that he would make contact with them after he died to prove the reality of the supernatural; some of his friends claimed to have contact, one of them via a 15-year-old-boy, which, wooooo boy howdy yikes. Another article here says that William and Henry promised each other that whoever died first would try to contact the other (William died first).

SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS LINK: Oldstyle Tales has a blog post called “7 Best Ghost Stories by Henry James….Not Including “The Turn of the Screw.” For those of you who want to read more creepy Henry James, the list is: “The Real Right Thing,” “The Way It Came,” “Sir Edmund Orme,” “The Ghostly Rental,” “Owen Wingrave,” “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” and “The Jolly Corner.” There are also some incredibly creepy illustrations at this link, along with some brief thoughts on Henry James’ skill as a writer of scary stories: “His fiction is impressionistic, psychological, and “courtly,” but it has one pervasive emotion to it: unease — discomfort, awkwardness, and a lurking shame buried in intentional secrecy. The fear of truth. The terror of exposure, of reality and confrontation.[…]And yet, for all his love of manners, whit, upper middle class malaise, and psychological realism, James returned time and time again throughout his career to a genre which seemed so at odds with his oeuvre: the Gothic ghost story.”


That’s all for now! Enjoy your reading and I will be back with more #turnofthescread content soon!

Author: bahnree

just a simple girl trying to read my way through the universe

One thought on “Henry James and the Ghost Story”

  1. Thanks for the links. I found a complete collection of James’s short fiction on Amazon for $1.92, and have started making my way through his other ghost stories.

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