8 Frightening Facts about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1898, Henry James published The Turn of the Screw, a bone-chilling novella about a governess, two seemingly saintly children, and a couple of wicked ghosts who may or may not actually be there. James wanted his terrifying tale to “scare the whole world,” and more than a century later, it’s still doing just that. The story has inspired countless adaptations in every format, the most recent being Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor—a follow-up to 2018's The Haunting of Hill House (which was based on Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel). Prepare to be unnerved all over again with these facts about the classic novella.

1. The Archbishop of Canterbury planted the seed that inspired The Turn of the Screw.

The godly archbishop who inspired quite a devilish story.E.F. Benson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One afternoon in January 1895, Henry James and his cohorts were gathered around the fire at the country house of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. While discussing how ghost stories had diminished in both quality and quantity, the esteemed church leader recounted a worthy one that a woman had told him years before. The story, James later wrote in his journal, involved “wicked and depraved” servants who “corrupt and deprave the children” in their charge and come back to haunt them after dying under mysterious circumstances. James also jotted down that the story should be told “by an outside spectator.” Not only does the story itself follow the basic plot of The Turn of the Screw, but James’s own fireside experience mirrors the opening frame of his novella, in which a man tells a ghost story that he first heard from a woman.

Benson died a couple of years before James got around to writing the story, and Benson's sons couldn’t recall their father ever having shared an anecdote that echoed it. But it seems probable that James spun his own story based on just a sentence or two; in his preface to the novella, he wrote that their host only remembered a “shadow of a shadow” of the story, likening it to a “precious pinch … extracted from an old silver snuff-box and held between finger and thumb.”

2. Henry James's main reason for writing The Turn of the Screw was because he needed money.

The royalties for James’s early novels were beginning to dry up by the 1890s, which prompted him to briefly pivot to playwriting. While most of his plays remained on paper only, Guy Domville did open in London in 1895. It was a disaster. “I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!” the titular character exclaimed at the end, to which one disgruntled theatergoer allegedly very audibly responded, “It’s a bloody good thing y’are!”

James, humiliated and short on cash, quit theater and soon moved to New York. There, he resigned himself to work he despised: Writing serials for magazines. One of these was The Turn of the Screw, published in Collier’s Weekly between January and April 1898. "I have succumbed, in that matter, purely to the pecuniary argument … It means £40 a month, which I simply couldn’t afford not to accept,” James told fellow novelist William Dean Howells in a letter, confessing that he “will do it again & again, too, even for the same scant fee: it’s only a question of a chance!”

3. Henry James didn’t originally think much of The Turn of the Screw.

Henry James, failed playwright, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

James seemed to have a tough time separating his serialized work from the begrudging financial motivation behind it. He referred to it sardonically as “Literature drivel,” and considered The Turn of the Screw in particular “the most abject, down-on-all-fours pot-boiler, pure & simple, that a proud man brought low ever perpetrated.” Potboiler, a derogatory term for art or literature created for money, appears throughout his correspondence. In a letter to the poet F.W.H. Myers from December 1898, James called The Turn of the Screw "a very mechanical matter … an inferior, a merely pictorial, subject and rather a shameless pot-boiler.”

“I could easily say worse of [The Turn of the Screw] ... than the worst any one else could manage,” James wrote to H.G. Wells earlier that month. “The thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d’esprit.”

4. Henry James eventually came to appreciate The Turn of the Screw.

Despite its author’s private slights, The Turn of the Screw proved popular among readers and reviewers alike. The New York Tribune dubbed it “one of the most thrilling stories we have ever read,” and The American Monthly Review of Reviews described it as “a beautiful pearl: something perfect, rounded, calm, unforgettable.” Even critics with much less glowing remarks at least acknowledged its shock value. The Independent, for example, called it “the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature.”

In 1908, James published the novella in the 12th volume of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition—a 24-volume collection of his selected works—and his preface suggested a change of heart toward the potboiler. He called it “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught” and pontificates about the mechanics of writing it.

“Indeed if the artistic value of such an experiment be measured by the intellectual echoes it may again, long after, set in motion, the case would make in favor of this little firm fantasy—which I seem to see draw behind it a train of associations,” he writes. “I ought doubtless to blush for thus confessing them so numerous that I can but pick among them for reference.”

5. Henry James made around 500 edits to The Turn of the Screw after its initial publication.

The governess sees a specter (or does she?) in Eric Pape's illustration for Collier's Weekly.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While the success of The Turn of the Screw may have contributed to James’s newfound fondness, it’s also likely that he was much happier with the 1908 version of the tale. It wasn’t published piecemeal, and it didn’t have the illustrations that Collier’s had printed with the serialized edition. James also made more than 500 edits to the text itself. These alterations don’t really impact the story, but it’s clear that James carefully tinkered with each sentence to find what he considered the perfect word or phrase. In a few places, for example, he changes stellar references to lunar ones—"bare to the constellations" became "uncovered to the moonlight," and "a great glitter of starlight" became "a great still moon"—and Flora’s "furious wail" goes from being "produced" to being "launched."

6. Critics can’t agree on whether or not the governess imagined the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw.

Even though the edits seem stylistic on the surface, critics have still used them to try to prove certain theories about the story. Perhaps the most highly contested one involves the reliability of the governess. Some scholars believe that she’s suffering from psychosis or another mental illness that’s causing her to hallucinate the ghosts, since we only ever hear her personal account of them (and the idea that the children can also see them is also solely based on her perception). Others, meanwhile, think The Turn of the Screw is a good, old-fashioned ghost story with good, old-fashioned ghosts. Proponents of the former theory cite James’s shift in verbiage as an indication that he wants us to distrust the governess—on many occasions in the 1908 edition, he changed phrasing to make her experiences seem more subjective. “I became sure” was changed to “I felt sure”; “I perceived” became “I felt”; “I found myself” became “I knew”; and so on. Skeptics argue that this shift isn’t consistent and there are still plenty of strong, objective verbs to make the point moot.

7. The Turn of the Screw scared almost everyone—including its author.

Eager listeners gather for a ghost story in another illustration by Eric Pape.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Rife with sinister uncertainty and culminating in a horrific cliffhanger, The Turn of the Screw is widely regarded as one of the best scary stories in American literature. So scary, in fact, that even James was spooked by it. “I had to correct the proofs of my ghost story last night,” he told poet Edmund Gosse, “and when I had finished them I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed!”

One person, however, remained completely unperturbed: James’s stenographer, William MacAlpine. James was ill while writing the story, so he decided to dictate it to MacAlpine. He also hoped seeing MacAlpine’s reaction to the tale might help him predict how other readers would receive it.

“Judge of my dismay when from first to last page this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling!” James said. “I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry, and whenever I paused to see him collapse, he would enquire in a dry voice, ‘What next?’”

8. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on The Turn of the Screw.

More than 120 years after its initial publication, The Turn of the Screw continues to inspire adaptations of every kind (and caliber). Floria Sigismondi's poorly received film The Turning, which was released in January, is a contemporary spin on the story, and horror fans have high hopes for another modern take: Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, which premieres on October 9. It’s the second season of an anthology series called The Haunting of Hill House, whose first season is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel of the same name. Jackson's novel, incidentally, is often compared to The Turn of the Screw.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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Remembering Rebecca: 11 Facts About Daphne du Maurier's Enduring Novel

Lily James as Mrs de Winter and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (2020).
Lily James as Mrs de Winter and Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (2020).
KERRY BROWN/NETFLIX

“Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca,” laments the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s beloved 1938 novel Rebecca. Mention the title to any bibliophile and they will no doubt give you many reasons why the novel has charmed and captivated so many generations over the years. So it's hardly surprising that this gothic thriller about a nameless young woman—who is swept off her feet by a wealthy widower, taken to live in his estate off the Cornish coast, and haunted by memories of his first wife—is the subject of Netflix’s next big-budget original.

The film, which stars Lily James (Downtown Abbey) and Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) arrives on Netflix on October 21, 2020. As you wait for the new adaptation to drop, here are a few facts about this enduring novel to keep you curious. **Warning: Spoilers below!**

1. Rebecca was first published in 1938 and has never gone out of print.

Selznick International Pictures, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Since it was published in 1938, Rebecca has never gone out of print [PDF], selling 2.8 million copies between 1938 and 1965. Over time, the novel has transformed from bestseller to cultural classic, with many stage and screen adaptations, including an Oscar-winning film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, and a 1993 book sequel by Susan Hill titled Mrs de Winter. In 2017, English bibliophiles voted Rebecca their favorite book of the past 225 years.

2. The heroine of Rebecca, Mrs de Winter, remains unnamed throughout.

Rebecca, after whom the novel is named, is dead when the story begins. She is brought to life via the impressions and memories other characters have of her and her lingering presence in Maxim de Winter's estate, Manderley, via her scent, her handwriting in books, and the carefully preserved clothes that remain in her wardrobe. Mostly, we see her through the eyes of the new Mrs de Winter, the "heroine" of the novel who, paradoxically, remains unnamed—a choice that surprised many fans of the book, including Agatha Christie [PDF].

3. Daphne du Maurier struggled with writer’s block while writing Rebecca.

Daphne du Maurier circa 1947.Ben van Meerendonk, AHF, IISG, Amsterdam // Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Du Maurier struggled with a serious case of writer’s block when she began writing Rebecca. She discarded the first 50 pages of an early draft, telling her publisher: "The first 15,000 words I tore up in disgust and this literary miscarriage has cast me down."

4. Once she got past her writer’s block, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca in four months.

Once she got past her early writing challenges, du Maurier wrote quickly and completed the manuscript for Rebecca in four months. Her secret? Arranging to spend time away from her children. “I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time,” du Maurier later wrote.

5. Rebecca has been celebrated as an important piece of feminist literature.

Initially marketed as a romance novel with Rebecca as the villainous, menacing wife, feminist interpretations of du Maurier’s novel now see it as a critique of gender power dynamics and a sexist society’s fear of powerful women. Some feminist critics suggest du Maurier intended for Maxim de Winter to be the real villain—the controlling husband who not only murders Rebecca when she refuses to play the obedient wife, but also oppresses and alienates the second Mrs de Winter, marrying her after the most unromantic of proposals: “I am asking you to marry me, you fool.”

6. In 2007, to mark the centenary of Daphne du Maurier's birth, the BBC produced two documentaries on the author.

Daphne, directed by Amy Jenkins, was based on Margaret Forster's biography of du Maurier which revealed, for the first time, du Maurier’s bisexuality. For the second documentary, The Road to Manderley, director Rick Stein set off in search of the author's world in Cornwall.

7. Some scholars believe Rebecca's second Mrs de Winter reflected Daphne du Maurier's sexual fluidity.

Some critics have wondered to what extent the character of the second Mrs de Winter was influenced by the author’s complicated and fluid sexuality. As Margaret Forster points out in her 1993 biography, du Maurier didn't think her desire for women made her a lesbian. The word transgender was not yet in common use then, but the author saw herself as female on the outside “with a boy’s mind and a boy’s heart.”

In the novel, the narrator casts herself as an androgyne, a friend and companion to Maxim, "a sort of boy," and obsessively wonders about Rebecca’s absent body, how she wore her coat, the color of her lipstick, her scent “like the crushed petals of azaleas."

8. Rebecca’s Manderley was inspired by two real-life estates.

A photo of Milton Hall.Julian Dowse, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The secretive mansion which lends the novel its famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," was partly inspired by Milton Hall [PDF], an estate near Cambridge that du Maurier spent time at as a child. When she wrote Rebecca nearly 20 years later, du Maurier told Milton Hall's owner that she based Manderley's interiors on her memories of the "big house feel" [PDF] of Milton during WWI.

The other estate du Maurier had in mind when imagining Manderley was the Menabilly estate in Fowey, Cornwall. Du Maurier fell in love with the house when she was 21 years old. Five years after Rebecca was published, she convinced its owners to lease her the home. But just like Manderley is forever lost to Mrs de Winter in a fire, du Maurier was forced to move out of Menabilly in 1969.

9. Daphne du Maurier has been accused of plagiarizing parts of Rebecca from Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco's book The Successor.

Brazilian critics have long argued that du Maurier plagiarized Rebecca from Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco's 1934 book, The Successor. While the two novels do share striking plot similarities, the allegations were never proven one way or another. Du Maurier also faced a lawsuit in 1947 for allegedly plagiarizing Edwina DeVin McDonald’s novel Blind Windows and the short story "I Planned to Murder my Husband." Du Maurier denied any charges.

10. During World War II, a copy of Rebecca was discovered among the possessions of two captured German spies.

British intelligence officers determined that a copy of Rebecca had been used by the Germans during World War II as a code key.

11. Rebecca has been adapted to a variety of media.

Rebecca had been adapted for film several times, but the best-known adaptation is Hitchcock’s 1940 film of the same name. It’s also been adapted to television a number of times, as a radio play, and an opera.