The chilling Victorian ghost story that inspired numerous other books, films, plays and opera is The Turn of the Screw. The plot seems so very familiar because of this: a young governess is employed to look after two orphans whose previous governess has mysteriously disappeared along with a male servant. There are sightings of a man and a woman around the stately home and grounds, and the children's behaviour is a little odd. Is the place haunted?
The story opens with a gathering of friends at Christmas eve, the traditional ghost storytelling time. The friends discuss the issue of whether there really were apparitions and wonder if one child "gives the effect another turn of the screw," thus addressing the value of the narrator. Children, of course, obviously are innocent and pure while the governess is the original unreliable narrator. The man who hired her (the children's uncle) is so terribly handsome that the young woman is bound to be in love with him, so she has her angle and therefore cannot be trusted with the truth. Children are not like that. However, these children may be, but it's not their fault.
It is a clever story, gothic in atmosphere and setting but also considering the psychological themes of innocence, anxiety, obsession and projection. Written in the Victorian period, the language somehow adds to this first person frame story. Tense, confusing, disturbing and utterly brilliant.
Originally published in serialised format in Collier's Weekly between January and April 1898. Published in book format by MacMillan in October 1898. Many other reprints available.