I have never been a Henry James fan. I quickly learned to Cliffs-notes the heck out of any James I ever had to read for school rather than read any more page-long sentences than absolutely necessary. The man loves his commas. But for whatever reason (shortness, probably!), I decided to actually read this novella when it was on my freshman comp syllabus, and I remember quite enjoying it! So I figured, when I found it on audio, that it would be a delightfully spooky start to this year’s RIP Challenge.
Well. Eh. I mean, yes, compared to all other Henry James I’ve “read,” this was fantastic. But I think that memory of awesomeness set the bar a liiiiiittle high on this listen!
The story is structurally excellent. It starts with a group of people sitting around some old inn or other chatting about spooky things, and this mysterious guy is like, “Dudes, I have the spookiest story.” And everyone else is like, “Do tell.” And MG is like, “Well, I mean, I don’t want to paraphrase, so let me send away for someone to mail me the well-worn manuscript I keep locked away in my house, it’ll be here in a couple days.” And everyone else is like, “‘Kay.”
And so the manuscript gets there, and then we’re in the story proper, which is of a governess who goes off to the country to take care of a couple kids, one of whom has recently been expelled from school for some unknown reason. While she’s there, she sees a creepy dude and then later a creepy lady, and she quickly ascertains/decides that these are the ghosts of some dead former employees of the estate. She also ascertains/decides that the kiddos can see these ghosts, too, and that a) the kids are keeping the ghosts a secret and b) the ghosts are influencing the kids in some creepy way. There’s a lot of skulking about and people appearing and disappearing and, spoiler?, that line between ascertaining and deciding becomes important in the end.
It’s a creepy little story on paper, but this audio version suffers from the same problem I had with The Eyre Affair — namely that the narrator seems to be more “reading words off a page” than “telling a ghost story.” I wanted and expected hushed voices and proper ghost story pacing, and I did not get those things.
And those things would have helped a lot with the things I had forgotten about the novella, which is that it is slow as all get out at the beginning, and then ends very abruptly, and the motivations of the characters are confusing or nonexistent. As a ghost story of indeterminate origin and unreliable narrator, I can forgive these problems, but if I have to listen to it as a strict retelling of some old manuscript, I’m gonna get a little antsy about them.
I think next time I find myself remembering this story fondly, I’ll grab a print copy and read it at two in the morning during a thunderstorm. Can’t get better ambiance than that!
Recommendation: I can’t recommend the audiobook, but I think the story is good for someone who wants a bit of a literary ghost story.