Sunday, October 16, 2016

Two more Henry James ghost stories - previewing "The Turn of the Screw" in "The Way It Came"

Two Henry James ghost stories that, unlike the last two I read, are ghost stories.  Or they are closer.

The strangeness in “Owen Wingrave” (1892) is less the ghost, or its possibility, than the number of elements unusual for James.  Wingrave is some kind of pre-cadet, from a long line of military men.  He is being trained by something like a crammer, except that the preparation is not for Oxford but for a military academy; a tutor for new military officers.

Wingrave decides that he will discontinue his cramming, perhaps due to a new pacifism.  He “despises” “’I think, military glory.  He says we take the wrong view of it’” says a friend who may well have no idea what he is talking about.  “’He hates poor old Bonaparte worst of all.’”

Wingrave’s family, incapable of understanding a principled objection, fears cowardice.  Luckily their country house features a ghost, an angry old officer, allowing Wingrave to prove that he is courageous.

I can imagine James working backwards when thinking about this ghost story: ghost – fear – cowardice – bravery – battles (wait, don’t know enough about that) – military – etc.  “Owen Wingrave” is the closest thing I have seen to a James ghost story written to solve as much of a commercial as an artistic problem.

James can lay it on amusingly thick:

She characterized it as “uncanny,” she accused her husband of not having warned her properly.


As she confessed for her own part, in the dreadful place, to an increased sense of “creepiness,” they spent the early part of the night in conversation…

This, quotation marks and all, from a minor character who is very much an outsider in the story, looks like James winking at his readers, or at himself.

“The Way It Came” (1896), later retitled “The Friend of the Friends,” is a whole ‘nother critter.  A man and woman both saw visions or ghosts of their dead parents, a common enough ghost story, friends, including the narrator, think they should meet.  Is this perhaps a romance story, with ghosts as the meet-cute?  No, the characters somehow never meet, at least while they are both alive.  At the woman’s death, the man claims that he finally did see her.  He is by this point engaged to the narrator, who is jealous of the dead woman.  Is her fiancé having an affair with a ghost?  Is the woman just jealous of his gifts, his visions?

I should have supposed it more gratifying to be the subject of one of those inexplicable occurrences that are chronicled in thrilling books and disputed about at learned meetings; I could conceive, on the part of a being just engulfed in the infinite and still vibrating with human emotion, of nothing more fine and pure, more high and august than such an impulse of reparation, of admonition or even of curiosity. That was beautiful, if one would, and I should in his place have thought more of myself for being so distinguished.

The narrator writes a little bit like middle-period James.  But not quite.  When she goes for a scene, for dialogue, she sounds just like James, but when describing events more generally, or when describing her impressions, something is off about her.  It is possible that she is nuts.  None of the characters have names, which in a James story is as odd as anything else.  The story begins with a frame where an editor, or James, says that the story is unpublishable – “can you imagine for a moment my placing such a document before the world.”

The tale James published before this one was “The Figure in the Carpet.”  The next one would be “The Turn of the Screw,” with its frame, odd narrator, etc.  Boy am I glad I read this one.


  1. Interesting insights as ever. Haven't read the second story, but did read OW many years ago; need to reread/read these. One point: I'd be reluctant to say HJ didn't know about battles; his brothers came back from the civil war traumatised and wounded; he felt deeply about not participating, as I recall. And there was that mysterious injury he suffered...Great stuff as ever, though. Ghosts and artists: maybe the same thing.

  2. I mean that James was not going to try to write his own "Red Badge of Courage." He depended too much on his own observations to try Crane's stunt, writing actual battle scenes. Second-hand was not good enough for James.

  3. What most impressed me about TFOTF was how unpredictable it was during the first time I read it. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but then James just kept adding layers of incident and ambiguity; not to mention the usual sexual innuendo: "I looked round his bedroom where she [the ghost] had been — where she had been and I never had been." TFOTF is one fun story to read.

  4. The phrases are intriguing: "usual sexual innuendo" and "mysterious injury." I guess Hemingway was on to something with his quick little jab at HJ and the bicycle; I couldn't resist commenting and including a petty homage to the HJ semicolon.

  5. It's also notable James use of the word exquisite, a cousin of tasteful:

    "-OMG what were you looking at? -Honey, these are tasteful, artistic photos, that is all, LOL."

    “She came so that we should, after all, at last meet. The impulse seemed to me exquisite, and that was the way I took it.”

    “And was the way you took it the way she expressed it?”

    “She only expressed it by being here and by letting me look at her. That was enough!” he exclaimed with a singular laugh.

  6. It's the only James story I can think of with a female narrator. Oh, wait: "Turn of the Screw," once you get past the framing story. The framing story is told by a man, innit? I always assume so, but maybe that's just my implicit bias.

  7. I don't see anything determinative in the frame. That narrator makes sense as "James," but who knows. The parallel with "The Turn of the Screw" may influence me as well.

    Some of the aspects Cleanthess mentions I only caught, to the extent I did, because I suddenly realized "Hey, this is like in" etc. Not necessarily a great way to read the story.

    The part where a man prefers an imaginary woman to a real one, that I picked up from other James stories.

    As for poor James's horrid injury, here is some detective work with more information, and less, than anyone could want. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, West, Wells, Edel. It is amusingly written. Inspirational quote, and my new motto: "Plus, I'm a complete idiot."