I'm not sure why I picked up the collection containing this novella a few days ago and began to read it. It's an old paperback that I think I got from a library discard shelf not long ago. I noticed it in a pile and suddenly felt that I not only would enjoy reading Henry James, but that a Henry James ghost story seemed just the thing I wanted to read at that moment (notwithstanding the couple of other books in progress). I've had reading James in mind for several years now, but his major novels are a bigger commitment of reading time and effort than I've wanted to make. I'm not sure I've read anything by him since college, and at any rate not for a great many years.
I'm sorry to say that The Turn of the Screw has rather weakened that impulse. I'm a little puzzled by those who find it genuinely frightening as a ghost story. The events it portrays certainly ought to be frightening, and the first of them did have for me a definite menace. But as the story went on the events were buried too deeply in James's fastidious and elaborate detailing of extremely subtle psychological movements to be effective. If the phrase "wildly fastidious" is not nonsense, it applies to James's prose. Sometimes I feel like it's gotten a bit out of control, that he can't stop himself from refining his words in pursuit of some very, very sharp and subtle shade of consciousness which, after many cycles of refinement, has been reduced to a very small quantity of fine powder.
I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge.
If that's excessively and unnecessarily convoluted, and I think it is, and if it could be straightened out a bit without losing its elegance, it would certainly be much the worse without "real splendor of the little inspiration." But the virtues of this prose are not ones conducive to suspense, which is so crucial to a ghost story.
The main characters are a governess and two children. The governess's articulation of her own reactions, motives, and decisions in dealing with the supernatural events facing her sometimes seems implausibly complex and delicate--we are supposedly hearing the story as written down by herself--and the corresponding accounts of the children's speech and her appraisals of their reasoning sometimes slip on over into the unbelievable. Which also works against the overall effect.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy it; I did, apart from the occasional sentence which I found myself unable to render into any very definite meaning. (Some of it I read late at night, and maybe the problem was that I was sleepy.) But as a ghost story it doesn't rank in power with some others I can think of: "The Judge's House," by Bram Stoker, for instance, or "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs. And I don't think I'm up to tackling, say, the 600-plus pages of The Portrait of a Lady.
Addendum: Apparently there are some critics who believe that the ghosts are not real, existing only in the imagination of one of the characters. I guess that's possible, but don't see any reason to think so.