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A Trap for the Unwary

18 Mar

It is interesting to note that Henry James, one of the most celebrated mainstream authors of the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic, was also, throughout his illustrious career, attracted to the much-maligned ghost story genre. However, he was not fond of literature’s stereotypical ghosts, what he termed the old-fashioned ‘screamers’ and ‘slashers’. Rather, he preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality: ‘the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy’ as he put it. The Turn of the Screw – James’ most famous entry in the supernatural genre – is no exception to this formula. The novella has had differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive. Many critics have tried to determine the exact nature of the evil hinted at by the story – are the story’s ‘ghosts’ an objective reality or simply a creation of the troubled protagonist’s mind? The author himself was little help on what has become a long-standing critical dispute about the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the story’s heroine – in famously ambiguous terms James once described The Turn of the Screw as ‘a trap for the unwary’.

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