Ambiguous Horror

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 31 2012 @ 6:30pm

Reviewing the latest edition of Henry James' novella "The Turn of the Screw," Brad Leithauser hails the "radical asymmetry" of interpretation in the best ghost stories:

All such attempts to "solve" the ["The Turn of the Screw"], however admiringly tendered, unwittingly work toward its diminution. Yes, if we choose to accept the reality of the ghosts, "The Turn of the Screw" presents a bracing account of rampant terror. (This is the way I first read it, in my teens.) And if we accept the governess’s madness, we have a fascinating view of a shattering mental dissolution. (That’s the way I next read it, under a professor’s instruction in college.)

But "The Turn of the Screw" is greater than either of these interpretations. Its profoundest pleasure lies in the beautifully fussed over way in which James refuses to come down on either side. In its twenty-four brief chapters, the book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity. It is rigorously committed to lack of commitment. At each rereading, you have to marvel anew at how adroitly and painstakingly James plays both sides.