Pure evil – Colm Tóibín on The Turn of the Screw

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has inspired novels, an opera and several films - including The Innocents, which Pauline Kael called the best ghost movie she'd ever seen. How did he make such a simple story so chilling? By Colm Tóibín

In January 1895, when Henry James was in the depths of depression due to the failure of his play Guy Domville, the Archbishop of Canterbury told him the story that became The Turn of the Screw. James wrote in his notebook: "Note here the ghost story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury ... the story of the young children ... left to the care of servants in an old country house through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children ... The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon ... It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told ... by an outside spectator, observer."

James let the story ferment in his mind for more than two-and-a-half years before he set to work on it. For most of his career he was sadly aware that his books would never attract a large audience, but there were times when he directly and openly sought popularity. This was one of them. Through his friend William Dean Howells he had made contact with a new young editor at Collier's Magazine in the United States, to whom he sold the serial rights for his new story. He made The Turn of the Screw as frightening and dramatic as he could because he needed a new audience in America. So frightening, indeed, that he actually frightened himself. When he came to correct the proofs of the story, which was serialised over 12 issues in 1898, he told his friend Edmund Goose: "When I had finished them I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed."

The tale, on publication, caused strong reaction. The New York Tribune called it "one of the most thrilling stories we have ever read", the Outlook called it "distinctly repulsive", the Bookman "cruel and untrue", the Independent "the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature". The American Monthly Review of Reviews called it "the finest work he has ever done ... a beautiful pearl: something perfect, rounded, calm, unforgettable". Ainlee's Magazine, however, warned its readers in December 1898 that Henry James "is by no means a safe author to give for a Christmas gift".

The story has had enormous influence, indirectly, on the structure and tone of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, begun very soon after Conrad read The Turn of the Screw, and on films such as The Others, made in 2001, starring Nicole Kidman. In 1954, Benjamin Britten's opera based on the story was first produced. In 1971, Marlon Brando starred as the evil Peter Quint in The Nightcomers, a dark prequel to James's story. In 1974, ABC Television in the US made a rather clunky version of the story with Lynn Redgrave as the governess. But it is the 1961 adaptation called The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr - scripted by William Archibald, who wrote the Broadway play of the story, and Truman Capote, with some dialogue by John Mortimer, and just re-released in cinemas - that best catches the psychological eeriness, the claustrophobia and the essential ambiguity of the original story by James.

James loved hearing half a story, which was what the Archbishop of Canterbury told him on January 10 1895. He then could fill in the rest. "I wrought it into fantastic fiction," he wrote to AC Benson, the archbishop's son, when the story was finished. To begin with, he framed the story. A man at a country house party sends home for a long-locked-up manuscript to amuse and horrify his companions. In this manuscript the story of the children - a boy and a girl - and the dead, corrupt haunting servants is recounted in the first person by the new governess arriving at a remote house where the children are unprotected.

For even the laziest reader of The Turn of the Screw, the governess's tone appears overwrought and her attitude self-regarding. Soon, however, in the light of what she begins to see and sense, this ceases to matter. There are phrases and scenes in the book written with such skill and care and trickery as to make any reader follow it with a great unease. James was right to be frightened. It is a very frightening story.

James told HG Wells that The Turn of the Screw was "essentially a pot-boiler", repeating the phrase 10 days later to another correspondent, calling it "a shameless pot-boiler". The word "pot-boiler" might thus seem a way for James to describe something less than holy, less than worthy, below the high line to which he wanted his art to ascend. But in a letter to Hendrik Andersen, written eight years later, he uses the word to mean often, as he explains, something "which represents, in the lives of all artists, some of the most beautiful things ever done by them". He was never simple, Henry James.

This lack of simplicity is what gives The Turn of the Screw its power. It is, on one level, a deeply and perhaps unconsciously autobiographical story. Because their restless father constantly crossed the Atlantic with them, the James children were natives only of the James family. They had no peer group or set of close friends as they were growing up. They were looked after a great deal by their Aunt Kate. It would not have been hard for Henry James to imagine an adolescent boy with no friends who broke rules - his brother William was like that - or a strangely wilful unprotected girl - his invalid sister Alice, who arrived in England in 1884 to be near him, was also like that.

If an aspect of James and his siblings became both Miles and Flora, then a larger part of the author became the governess. Just before he began the story, James signed a lease on Lamb House in Rye, his first house. He composed the story in London while repairs were being done, imagining with friends and correspondents what it was going to be like to travel alone to live in a house with a history. He was, like his creation, thrilled and frightened at the prospect.

By the time he wrote The Turn of the Screw, James had ceased to write in long-hand and begun to dictate his stories and novels to a secretary. His first secretary was a dour Scot called MacAlpine. He told a friend how he had meant "to scare the whole world with that story ... Judge of my dismay when from first to last this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling! I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry."

In the 20th century, the critics, led by Edmund Wilson, got to work on the story with the same cold attitude as the Scottish amanuensis. The ghosts, it was pointed out, were never actually seen by the children or by the housekeeper, but by the governess alone. Thus, it was suggested, the ghosts were aspects of the deep neurosis affecting our hysterical governess. Rather than a ghost story, The Turn of the Screw was "a study in morbid psychology", Wilson concluded in 1934. The American poet and critic Allen Tate in 1942 supported Wilson: "James knew substantially all that Freud knew before Freud came on the scene."

The problem for the Freudian reading of the story is that, while the children do not see the ghosts, the reader does. James invoked the evil and haunting presence of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel with consummate zeal and energy. Thus he managed to have it both ways. The ghosts existed, it is true, only in the mind of the governess; the ghosts, more importantly, also give the reader the creeps.

For anyone thinking of making a film of the story, this ambiguity was a godsend. All you needed was a suggestive, vulnerable and sexually repressed lead actress ("I played it as if she were completely sane," Kerr said), a lot of wild music and some special effects as the ghosts peered in windows or stood on the battlements of the remote house.

The black-and-white film, directed by Jack Clayton, is quite beautiful. It, too, is framed at the beginning by the appearance of Kerr's pleading hands and her face, wonderfully lit, filmed from the side as she insists, rather too emphatically for comfort, that she loves the children and only wants to care for them. The spooky atmosphere of the house is re-created with great subtlety, with no cheap shock tactics or easy effects. Megs Jenkins plays the deeply stupid housekeeper Mrs Grose as conscientious and kind-hearted and knowing her place. Slowly, as the camera moves from wide scenes of faded opulence to tiny and frightening objects, Grose's expression becomes permanently worried and bewildered; she unwillingly reveals that the two dead servants were less than innocent.

While in the Broadway play the children see the ghosts and in Britten's opera Miles and Flora sing to them, here their innocence is ambiguously preserved. They do not see what appears so dreadful and appalling to their overwrought governess. But they are not all sweetness and light either. The sense that they have been corrupted, or that there is an extraordinary bond between them, is carefully dramatised.

In James's story, there is no explanation given for Miles's expulsion from school. In the 1974 TV version, he is naughty and knowing, and tortures animals; he is a 14-year-old boy who flirts with his governess, kissing her in one bedroom scene. In the story, when the governess comes to his bedroom, Miles blows her candle out. (This is repeated in Britten's opera: "Twas I who blew it, who blew it, dear") And in The Innocents, even though Miles, played by Martin Stephens, looks like a nine-year-old, he is not beyond coming on to his governess, his kisses seeming deliberate and sexual rather than innocent and sweet.

This causes the governess to believe even more that the children have been corrupted, as she makes mad plans to send Flora to her uncle, played with an amused camp glint in his eye by Michael Redgrave. She wants to stay with Miles to confront the ghastly Quint. As she becomes more and more hysterical, it is clear why Pauline Kael called The Innocents "the best ghost movie I've ever seen", and it is easy to mourn the fact that Henry James, when he finally took up residence at Lamb House, did not have a DVD player in his drawing room, all the more to frighten himself so that he would, once more, be afraid to go to bed.

· The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, until June 15. Box office: 020 7928 3232. Then touring. Colm Tóibín's The Master, a biographical novel about Henry James, is published by Picador

Colm Tóibín

The GuardianTramp

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