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

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
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

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

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
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
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
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
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.

Exploring the Non-Realist
Tradition in Fiction
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

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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.  
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:
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:
By Stephen King

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

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James
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