Henry James, Horror Writer














Essay by Ted Gioia
In college I was taught that Henry James was a man of gravitas, a
writer whose work resonates with discretion and discernment. And if I
had any doubts, I simply needed to look at
John Singer Sargent’s
portrait of the "Master"a capital M is advised nowadays when using
James’s sobriquet—with its sober mein, Napoleonic hand positioning,
and gold watch chain. Sargent could very well have entitled this work
Gravitas, and we would have all nodded our heads in approval.

Henry James’s characters are much the same. They too are masters of
discretion and restraint. Read his late novels, and see how carefully his
protagonists couch their views in ambiguous words, and indirect
statements. What are they really thinking? Trying to figure that out is
half the fun—I use that word advisedly: one person’s fun is another’s
hard labor without parole—in reading these books.


Related Essays:
How Henry James Invented Modern Fiction
Colm Tóibín's The Master, A Novel About Henry James


No, not everyone is prepared to find enjoyment in dense novels such as
The Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl. Christopher Beha recalls the
sympathetic reactions of his friends when he told them of his plan to
read James’s entire oeuvre, who treated his project as a kind of self-
flagellation, or "an exercise in self-discipline." "Better you than me,"
was a typical response.  But I like the multilayered quality of these
works, the huge gap between cause and effect, rich with implication, in
their pages. And I admire the misdirection and nuances of the author
who constructs these rich, gradually unfolding dramas, where conflicts
develop in hints and allusions.  If I had to describe the essence of
James the writer, I would summon up that arch praise of Shakespeare,
in Sonnet 94, of those "who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
unmoved, cold and to temptation slow."

But the scholars who have surrounded James are a different matter
entirely. They are prickly and contentious, ready to argue about
everything. Even James’s sex life, which should be a slam dunk to
describe—this author with a "low amatory coefficient" (according to his
doctor) hardly had one; next question please—gets worked over and
turned into a big academic equivalent of a TV wrestling free-for-all.
(Check out the
eight-part article here  , if you doubt it.)

But the most contentious work in James's whole body of work is one of
the shortest, namely the classic ghost story
The Turn of the Screw.
And the controversy centers on the embarrassing fact that this author
of gravitas would even condescend to write a ghost story. And this
work was hardly the only one. James wrote plenty of ghost stories,
including significant works such as "The Jolly Corner," "The Third
Person," "Owen Wingrave," "The Real Right Thing," and "Sir Edmund
Orme."

Yes, believe it or not, Henry James was a horror writer!

But that’s hard for his academic entourage to stomach. And they have
tried, in various ways, to put another spin on this work. Yet their
various reinterpretations tell us more about the passing fads and
fashions in lit crit than they do about Henry James.

When the book first appeared, the
New York Times greeted The Turn
of the Screw
as a commentary on moral turpitude—the reviewer
lauding James tale as "the strongest and most affecting argument
against sin we have lately encountered in literature." But by the 1920s,
Harold C. Goddard was viewing the story as the account of a
hallucination, and in 1924 Edna Kenton categorically stated that the
ghosts in James’s tale did not exist.  A decade later, Edmund Wilson
concocted a Freudian interpretation of
The Turn of the Screw, arguing
that it actually dealt with a "neurotic case of sex repression." (I warned
you—there’s a lot of sex in Jamesian criticism….or maybe just the
critics themselves.)

By the time we arrive at the inquiries of Leon Edel, James
's most
committed biographer, ghosts play no part in the consensus view of
The Turn of the Screw. Edel was simply reflecting the prevalent view
of the scholarly community in announcing that the book is "a tale of a
governess frightened by her own imaginings….the demon she seeks to
exorcise is the demon within herself." What we are witnessing is a case
of hysteria, plain and simple.

But with the rise of postmodernism, a new view of James's story
comes to the forefront. Our esteemed author wasn’t a crude Freudian
with politically incorrect views of female hysteria. No, not all. He was
actually a master—okay a Master—of  multivalent narrative
ambiguity, inviting alternative readings of his text. In other words,
James wanted to present simultaneously two different views of the
story: the ghosts might exist, and then again they might not. Only a
fool uninitiated in the wonders of deconstruction would actually opt for
just one of these outcomes. When I was in grad school, this was the
dominant view of
The Turn of the Screw—and it was helped by similar
manifestations of ambiguity in several of James’s other so-called
'ghost' stories.

But once we accept the possibility of hallucinations and unreliable
testimony of characters, all of these stories start to fall apart. Does
Spencer Brydon actually see his ghostly alter ego late at night in his
abandoned childhood home? Or maybe he is just having a bad hair day.
Are the two spinsters in James’s "The Third Person" really fighting
over a charismatic male ghost—I note that they never both encounter
him at the same time—or are they simply trying to inspire each other’s
jealousy? We never really get a glimpse of the ghost in "Owen
Wingrave" and when two characters both see an apparition at the
same time in "Sir Edmund Orme," who is to say that we are merely
dealing with a case of mass hysteria?

If we are destined to update our view of James's horror writings on the
basis of passing fads, we should finally have arrived back at the
starting point—namely to view these ghost stories as actual ghost
stories. After all, what is hotter now than genre fiction? Even serious
highbrow authors are now writing science fiction, fantasy and horror
novels. Cormac McCarthy won a Pulitzer Prize for
The Road, an
unabashed horror novel, and Jennifer Egan got one too for her sci-fi
infused
A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Patrick Modiano, recent Nobel
laureate, has
built his oeuvre on works that draw on mysteries, horror
fiction and crime  thrillers.  

So why not Henry James? Why can’t we treat him as a horror writer?

If you cut through all the posturing and theorizing of later critics, and
return to what James himself said about his work, we find that he had
no problem labeling these works as "ghost stories." Even more
noteworthy: if you read James’s prefaces, which represent his most
important contribution to literary criticism, you can even find material
for a very sophisticated defense of genre fiction.  Here he waxes poetic
on the leap of imagination that presents "the strange and sinister
embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy."

I never run into any notice of such passages in discussions of genre
stories. Indeed, Henry James is usually viewed as the champion of
strict realism, and embraced as the superior highbrow writer in
comparison with the lowbrow purveyors of genre tales. Yet James
himself admits that, if his personal preferences had been different, he
might be writing detective stories or adventure tales featuring pirates.
His preference for the ghost story stems from his interest in the
psychological impact of horror on the person haunted, and this allowed
him to embrace this genre as a kind of turbo
-charged fairy tale.

Yet the question remains. If James
was so enamored with horror, why
do the ghosts stay out of view in
most of his tales? Why is ther
e so
little actual haunting in his haunted
houses?

In answering this we need to consider
what people of James’s time and place
actually believed about ghosts. This is
a vital starting point, because the
Western world—especially Victorian
England—was obsessed with
supernatural phenomenon during
the period in which James wrote these
stories. Seances were regular affairs in
high society, and James’s own brother,
the esteemed William James established the American Society for
Psychical Research—an organization that is still investigating ghosts
today—back in 1885. Many prominent authors of that period, for
example Arthur Conan Doyle, were convinced of the reality of spirits.

In that era, ghosts were expected to appear at séances or in haunted
houses, but you rarely got more than a brief glimpse of them. Those
seeking irrefutable evidence of their existence were inevitably
disappointed. This wasn't a field in which objective documentation was
possible.

So should we be surprised that Henry James allowed his fictional
ghosts to practice the same reticence that 'real-life' specters
demonstrated in his day? What else would we expect from an author
who based so much of his work on close observation of the world
around him? His presentation of ghosts, much like his depiction of
affluent Americans and decadent Europeans, aspired to a scrupulous
accuracy, and in the case of the supernatural, James's best sources
were the various first-person accounts of 'sightings' that he must have
heard over the years. The inquisitive reader who probes
deeply
between the lines could even surmise that James himself may
have had a glimpse of a ghostly presence.

An even better reason for James’s shy
ghosts comes in a statement from the
author himself—but one found in the
least likely place. In a medical study
on
angina pectoris, Sir James Mackenzie
shares a conversation he had with a patient
who had written a famous ghost story. From
the context, we can tell that the writer in
question in Henry James, and the story
The
Turn of the Screw
. Here in a forgotten book
on heart disease, we encounter the Master in
a casual setting explaining his ghost story to
an inquisitive reader.

Why didn't readers get more details on the apparitions? Dr. Mackenzie
insisted that his patient explain himself. "So long as the events are
veiled," James responded, "the imagination will run riot and depict all
sorts of horrors, but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears
and with it the sense of terror."

Here we see that Henry James is not much different from Alfred
Hitchcock or those other purveyors of horror who grasp that the
ultimate source of fright is what
might happen, rather than what
actually occurred. Put simply, James was trying to make his story as
scary as possible, and his much-studied ambiguity was merely a device
to accentuate the terror.

So forget about your Freudian interpretations of James’s ghost stories.
And put away those clever theories about multivalent readings,
postmodern paradox, and hysterical hallucinations. James embraced
the essence of horror as a genre, and did his best to terrify, drawing on
his deepest insights into human nature to accentuate his effects. Based
on the success, and lasting fame, of his results, we should feel no
hesitation in mentioning his name alongside those of
Poe, Lovecraft,
Matheson and King as Masters—yes, I will insist on capitalization
here—of Horror.


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent
book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.
conceptual
fiction

Exploring the Non-Realist
Tradition in Fiction
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

All rights reserved.
This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
T.G.
Forget about your Freudian
interpretations of James’s
ghost stories. And put away
those clever theories about
multivalent readings,
postmodern paradox, and
hysterical hallucinations.
James embraced the
essence of horror as a genre,
and did his best to terrify
.
Publication Date: March 13, 2016
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
Dracula
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
Carrie
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
Tales
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
Nausea
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James
To purchase, click on image