- The Good: Psychological horror and creepy children!
- The Bad: Often difficult to read; ambiguity can be confusing
- The Literary: Influential Victorian gothic ghosts!
A governess is hired to look after two young children at a remote English country estate. Charmed by the beautiful youths and eager to impress her impress her new employer, the governess does not report any irregularities, not even the dark figures who walk the estate.
Without too many spoilers, a few more plot points are key. The two children, Flora and Miles, live in the estate with Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Miles was recently expelled from boarding school. The governess notices that none of the members of the household acknowledge the two dark unknown figures who walk the estate. Upon interrogating Mrs. Grose, the governess learns that former governess Miss Jessel and another employee, Peter Quint, died only a short time ago.
This is certainly one of the most influential gothic ghost stories, emphasis on the gothic. These aren’t your modern ghosts. They appear dark, in black clothes, often in silhouette or reflection, often in a window in another wing of the estate, which is quite terrifying. Once the governess learns their identities, you might think she’d delve into their lives and their deaths, in an attempt to discover what they want. But this isn’t a modern ghost story. Instead, the governess becomes convinced that Flora and Miles can see the ghosts and covertly attempts to get them to admit it.
The focus is not on the dead, but on the living. The adults and the children refuse to acknowledge the presence of the ghosts, and it’s the children in particular who become the subject of fascination for the governess. At first, it’s their ethereal beauty, then their charm and grace, until they themselves become something quite otherworldly in the governess’ eyes.
Now onto the gothic nature of this story. It’s quite Victorian, with strict rules and repressed urges. It’s set in an old country estate with creepy children, an absent but obviously wealthy uncle, and lots of secrets, including just why Miles was expelled from boarding school. The prose is elaborate and flowy, with winding clauses that unfold in waves that crash upon the reader one after the other, disorientingly clouding the reader from the initial thought.
Everything is told from the perspective of the governess, so I love that the horror and creeping suspicion is all contained within the mind of one person, until you begin to question whether the governess is a reliable narrator. Is she being gaslit by all the other characters, or is she crazy, preying on children who are innocent of her own hallucinations?
The best part is that we’ll never know. The story is purposefully ambiguous on multiple levels, so the horrors remain unknown, whether they’re meant to be psychological or supernatural.
Highly recommended as an influential gothic horror story! Be prepared for active reading (and re-reading) of long and convoluted sentences!
“The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance–all strewn with crumpled playbills.”
To gaze into the depths of blue of the child’s eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of a cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgment and, so far as might be, my agitation.”
“It was as if, at moments, we were perpetually coming into sight of subjects before which we must stop short, turning suddenly out of alleys that we perceived to be blind, closing with a little bang that made us look at each other—for, like all bangs, it was something louder than we had intended—the doors we had indiscreetly opened.”