[Book Review] The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898) ★★★★★

book cover The Turn of the Screw by Henry James 1898

The Turn of the Screw will haunt you with its scares and mind-messing tale. 

The Turn of the Screw is a psychological supernatural gothic horror story that has become one of the most well-known horror stories of all time. Henry James’ work mostly focuses on the mind, the psyche and the thin line between reality and perception and the consciousness, creating a story where the so-called ghost might be real or not. Increased by an unreliable narrator this becomes even more questionable. 

The Turn of the Screw is such a story where reality is stretched into a gothic ghost story and where ghosts might dwell in an old mansion or in the mind of the main character, the nameless narrator. 


A governess is hired to care for two orphans, the 10 year-old Miles and his younger sister, 8 year-old Flora. The governess thinks the world of both children, but when Miles is suspended from boarding school and she can’t find out why, her worries about him start to take over. When she sees two apparitions of ghosts, she thinks they are after the children and she does everything to protect them. 

Why you should read it

The story is told in the first person and from the perspective of the governess. It’s her observations, thoughts and perceptions that form the narrative, making her an unreliable narrator and the story a questionable one. It’s just one side of the story we come to know, her story. 

It is therefore also the story of the governess, told by her, but also about her. It’s what goes on in her mind that is the story, not the development of the hauntings that might or might not be there. 

It’s her fears and anxieties that push the story forwards, even can cause a self fulfilling prophecy, if the ghost aren’t real. If they are, then you will look at the story quite differently. 

That’s the strength of the story, the question if it’s all real, or if it’s just all in her head. Also the way you read the story and how much yourself want to believe in ghosts or not, determine your conclusion at the end of the story. It rather ends quickly and with an open ending, so it’s really up to you if the governess was going mad or if there really were ghosts haunting the mansion.

It certainly is the right place for it. An old mansion that serves as a gothic setting is a perfect place where ghosts roam the halls and the grounds. Isolated, the governess only has company from the children. Children who are not that angelic as she thinks. Her constant power struggle with Miles and the elusiveness of Flora add to an ominous atmosphere and even make ghosts redundant to create a haunting atmosphere. A haunting after all takes place in the mind itself. 

The story is told very subtle and subdued, although not in a restraint way. She stays very close to her own thoughts and analyses herself and her perception, making the reader believe she is very self-aware and self-conscious and rational, thus fooling us but also herself. She isn’t in any way a dumb or superstitious person but in fact strong and intelligent, pushing her unreliability to the sideline and making us believe her, dragging us into her anxieties. 

The style is not the easiest to read, it’s more dramatic and heavy with long sentences and choice of words that forces to reader to focus. While it is a short story, everything that happens or is written down matters and that asks for even more concentration while reading. But once you are used to the style, it adds to the overall vibe and atmosphere. 

My favorite part

While modern scholars have studied the story, there is no agreement if there were in fact real ghosts or if it was all in her head. That makes it even more of a challenge to read it and to see and read for yourself what you think. That’s the best part about a ghost story like this, you can play it out in your head as you wish or think is the truth, just like the governess did. 

Each time you can read it differently with another view in your mind. And what is more scary? Real ghosts or the notion that you are seeing things that are not there? This really is a haunting ghost story, in which way you want to perceive it, it stays scary all the same.

A favorite quote

‘The Apparition had reached the landing half-way up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where, at the sight of me, it stopped short.’


Rating: ★★★★★

Scare factor: ★★★☆☆

Originality factor: ★★★★★

Read more about Henry James:


The Turn of the Screw is written by Henry James and first published in Collier’s Weekly in 1898 and then in The Two Magics. It consist of 125 pages, depending on the edition. 

book cover The Turn of the Screw by Henry James 1898

Support BHG: