Henry James’s classic novella is a horror story and the reinterpretation – and sometimes it even seems: the parody – of classic horror stories at the same time. In the outer layer of narrative, we get to know a group of elegant society people who spend their evenings telling ghost stories. Then one day a member of the group announces that he’s in possession of an especially eerie story, left to him by an old acquaintance. Answering the curious urges of his friends, the man sends for the story, and when the old, yellowed document arrives, he reads it out loud to his company.
From this point on, the characters of the framing story are not mentioned anymore, and the rest of the book consists of the (ghost) story itself, as experienced and put on paper by the heroine of the story. The main character in the inner narrative is a young girl with a vivid imagination, who bravely accepts the post of governess in Bly, somewhere in the innocent English countryside – even if the the circumstances surrounding the position are somewhat suspicious: as the girl learns from her prospective employer, the previous governess lost her life, and the employer also adds that he needs an employee who is willing to solve every problem on her own, and never, ever troubles him with requests or complaints.
The young governess is flattered by the trust of her employer, and she’s sure she’ll be able to handle her tasks – but soon she realizes that she’s not altogether prepared for what awaits her in Bly. On the very day of her arrival she’s troubled by an unpleasant premonition, which disappears for a while when she gets to know her enchanting, innocent, intelligent pupils, Miles and Flora, who seem like a dream come true for any governess. The idyll, however, doesn’t last long, because the governess soon starts to notice uncanny apparitions: she sometimes catches sight of a strange man and a woman in and around the house, and soon she convinces herself that the apparitions aim to do harm to her lovely pupils, and that it’s her most noble duty to save them from the evil spirits – who, it seems, are not noticed by anyone else – or aren’t they?
Henry James builds tension in this story in a masterful and most deliciously confusing fashion, and leaves you completely at a loss. For one thing, he keeps planting contradictory details in the story: it’s enough to think about such small details as the fact that the governess once claims that she wouldn’t be able to describe the physical appearance of the ghost she encounters because he’s so plain and bland, and then in the next sentence she goes on to elaborate on the ghost’s characteristics, down to the most minute detail.
Besides this, James continuously makes you entertain doubts about the honesty, innocence, motivations and sanity of the characters: in one moment the pupils seem to be wonderful angels, and in the next moment, they appear as manipulative little devils, harboring dark secrets; in one moment it seems that the only aim of the governess is to save her charges from every imaginable danger, and in the next moment she seems to be a deranged, attention-seeking young girl willing to go into any length just to arouse the interest of her employer; and Mrs. Grose, the old housekeeper of Bly sometimes behaves as if she believed the wild stories and conspiracy theories of the governess, while at other times she treats the governess as if she were dealing with an unpredictable, dangerously insane person.
James also uses a whole array of narratological tricks – it’s worth noting, for example, that the story abounds in unfinished sentences, and the conversations between the characters are either so intricately wrought yet unrevealing, or so full of double and triple meanings that it’s often impossible to decipher the true meaning and intention of the speakers. Besides all this, James also makes use of the usual elements of classic ghost stories – the walls of the idyllic country house hide shameful secrets, there are midnight apparitions galore, and the candles always go out in the worst possible moment.
And all this results in a deeply unsettling, unfinished story that (until the very last moment and even after that) offers at least two possible interpretations, a story which leaves you wondering: is it even a ghost story, or is it something else entirely? And since Henry James casually leaves the framing narrative unfinished, we never learn about the reactions of the people who listened to the story, and we get no road-sign whatsoever as to how the main story could be „correctly” interpreted. This is, in the end, an extremely smart, bewildering story – I suspect it’s too smart a novella to offer up all its layers in a single reading. I’ve already read it a couple of times, and I don’t feel I’m at the end of it yet.