I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. “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.
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 grimace. “For dreadful — dreadfulness!”
“Oh, how delicious!” cried one of the women.
He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. “For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.”
It’s amazing how much James does with so little. Even though The Turn of the Screw is more straightforward and more active than most of his other work (stuff actually happens in this story) it’s still full of his characteristic psychological subtlety. You can imagine how a tale of besieged governesses, menacing ghosts and posessed children would work out in the hands of another writer, but James sticks you inside the head of this harassed young woman and you don’t know if she’s extraordinarily insightful and courageous or completely crazy. That’s where the horror is. I love how James takes the Victorian ideal of children as angelic innocents and turns them into terrifying monsters. And I always forget how much I love his prose. It’s difficult but it’s worth the effort. He’ll have pages of complex, rambling paragraphs, and then finish with a short, sharp sentence that’s like a punch in the gut. The whole thing’s like that really, a slow build-up of foreboding and paranoia that just stops, suddenly, with a jolt. One of those books that should be read in the dead of winter before a roaring fire.