Confession: My sister and I attend a monthly “Opera Talk” at our local library. This talk is mostly peopled with white-haired old ladies, so when my sister and I first walked in, they loved us immediately; we’re young, Asian, and immediately made them feel culturally relevant and diverse.
At first “Opera Talk” we ever attended, a dude from the Opera League of Los Angeles gave a talk about Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of The Turn of the Screw. I didn’t think I’d like it because I hadn’t thought much of the book when I read it in my freshman year of college, and the opera was twentieth century and English. But as the dude (not to be confused with The Dude) explained Britten’s use of themes and twelve-tone row, I was surprised to find myself genuinely interested in the opera.
There are some truly creepy songs in this opera. We watched clips of the opera in a darkened room, and my skin was absolutely crawling during some of the songs. We learned that Britten used the celesta to signal the presence of one of the ghosts, and as he played the clip, I realized where I’d heard a celesta before.
The “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” theme song will never be the same for me after this.
After this little lecture on Britten’s Turn, I went home and immediately pulled out my old copy of Henry James’ novella.
The story concerns a nameless governess who picks up a gig caring for two children in the English countryside, eight-year-old Miles and six-year-old Flora. Both children are sweet and adorable, and the governess feels an instant connection with precocious, young Miles.
Miles is supposed to be at boarding school, but he’s expelled for some mysterious reason. The governess can’t understand what a boy as angelic as Miles could possibly have done to get expelled so suddenly and irrevocably, but soon decides to let the matter drop.
As she watches the children one day, she notices a man watching them from afar. He frightens her for some reason, and she discovers from the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that this specter matches the description of the master’s old valet, Peter Quint. The governess soon begins to see another ghost: Miss Jessel, her predecessor. The governess discovers that Quint and Miss Jessel had an affair, and that both died mysteriously. She also learns that the two may have had an inappropriate relationship with the children.
She begins to suspect that the children can see the ghosts, too, and that the ghosts are out to corrupt the children somehow. But she can’t catch the children communicating with the ghosts. She vows to save them from these spectral predators from beyond the grave.
The version of the book I read also came with a lot of reviews and analysis of the story. There has been a fierce debate over the years about whether the ghosts are real or the governess is losing her mind. But the theory that most intrigued me was the one that posited that the true villain of the story might be Mrs. Grose. It’s possible that Mrs. Grose, disgruntled at losing her place as the children’s primary caretaker with the arrival of the governess, slowly drives the governess to madness by planting creepy ideas in her head.
As far as the story itself is concerned, I think it doesn’t have quite the same shock value it probably had when it was first written, but it’s still pretty creepy. If you like ghost stories, this one’s a classic that you can’t miss.