Early on in his 1898 novella, Henry James presents his readers with the following vision of innocence: “What I then and there took him to my heart for was something divine that I have never found to the same degree in any child – his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.”
The apparently celestial being so captivatingly described here is one of two orphaned children – a brother and sister – entrusted to the care of a young governess by their absent uncle. The governess, who relates the story from a point in the future, travels to the country house where they live and is initially enchanted by her charges. But it soon becomes clear that all is not right. She learns that Miles, the brother, has been expelled from school. She catches glimpses of two ghostly figures and discovers that they correspond in appearance to the children’s previous governess and her lover, both of whom are dead. Worst of all, the children seem to be in league with these diabolical apparitions. The narrator takes it upon herself to save them. But will she end up falling herself?
James’s tale, which he described as “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation”, has inspired many successors, among them Benjamin Brittain’s opera and the 2001 film The Others. It is most straightforwardly seen as a classic ghost story, but numerous other interpretations have been foisted upon it, ranging from Christian allegory to exercise in unreliable narration to study of repressed homosexual desire. What is clear is that it’s a masterpiece of storytelling that succeeds in creating an atmosphere of unparalleled mystery and dread.