The British Film Institute in London has a ‘Gothic’ season on at the moment, and will be screening a fair few ghost stories over the next few weeks. The 1961 film ‘The Innocents’ is of course one of them, which prompted me to re-read the source novel. While I’ve become a coward in recent years, I do love things that go bump in the night, and so was hoping I’d be gripped by a book that’s so often touted as one of the great examples of psychological horror. I wasn’t.
A group of friends gathered in an old house are presented with a manuscript that one of the group was given by a governess many years before. It tells the tale of her first position, where she was employed as the ward of two orphaned children. Her employer, the children’s uncle, has little interest in them, and so she is dispatched to care for them in his secluded country house. This physical isolation mirrors her emotional solitude, as the only company she has are the two young children and the housekeeper. The governess has not been long at the house, when she begins to see a man and woman in the grounds. On describing them to the housekeeper, she realises that she is seeing the ghosts of the previous governess Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, another employee who was also her lover. These two had intense relationships with the children in life, and the governess decides she must do all she can to stop the spirits from interfering with the children in death. The real battle comes when the children reject her attempts to protect them, and seem to conspire against her.
There has been much debate in literary circles about whether the ghosts are real, or if the governess is insane. I took the book at face value, and chose to go with the notion that the evil spirits wish to take possession of their erstwhile charges. Unfortunately though, I found the prose impenetrable and convoluted, which hindered any building sense of menace and atmosphere. While some passages (particularly the one where the governess sees her predecessor sitting below her on the stairs) are creepy, this is no The Haunting of Hill House.