Henry James and his friend Douglas are guests for an extended time at a country house Christmas gathering, the old-timey English kind where ghost stories are told every evening. James and Douglas collaborate on a hoax, a prank, whereby Douglas tells the guests that he knows a ghost story which is true and has never been told and blah blah blah and makes a great show of sending for the manuscript and so on. James, who of course wrote the story, eggs everyone on as needed.
“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”
“For sheer terror?” I remember asking. [See?]
He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing gesture. “For dreadful – dreadfulness!”
The most dreadful kind of dreadfulness of all, dreadful dreadfulness. Ghost stories are hilarious. Delays are introduced to turn the screw of the audience’s tension, thus the title.
The whole thing took indeed more nights than one, but on the first occasion the same lady put another question. “What is your title?”
“I haven’t one.”
“Oh, I have!” I said. But Douglas, without heeding me…
James about gives away the game there. The manuscript, the story follows. At this point, readers simulate joining the audience, which is now listening to a ghost story written by James that they believe is written by a character in the story, although if they had any sense of literary style they would be deeply suspicious:
But there was everything, for our apprehension, in the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone’s memory, attached to the kind old place. (Ch. 6)
I mean, “perturbation of scullions,” it’s like a signature. Meanwhile, the reader knows full well the whole thing is a fiction created by James but generally pretends that the longer story, in which a deranged governess in an isolated country house has her fun scaring the hell out of a superstitious housekeeper and two bizarrely perfect, demon-haunted children. “They performed the dizziest feats of arithmetic, soaring quite out of my feeble range, and perpetrated, in higher spirits than ever, geographical and historical jokes” (Ch. 18). Weird kids.
The text has been picked to pieces in search of clues to solve various puzzles, to prove that the ghosts “real” and the governess crazy or that the governess merely crazy – surely no one, given this text, thinks her sane. After this reading, I am mostly convinced that the second-most productive way to read The Turn of the Screw is to work through the ghost story for clues - winks, jokes – that solve the puzzle of the frame story.