Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the most important features of Onion’s technique is his handling of the ghost. Henry James’s ghosts in The Turn of the Screw (1898) are seen only by the governess; that their very existence is therefore in doubt increases the psychological pressure on the reader to resolve the mystery. William Shakespeare’s ghost in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601) is seen by several people, but it speaks only to Hamlet; that Hamlet doubts what the ghost tells him reveals the depths of Hamlet’s character. The beckoner is more like Shakespeare’s ghost than James’s. Oleron’s destruction reveals the fatal weaknesses of his character, but the ghost herself remains shrouded in mystery. What does she offer? Is she really an evil spirit, as Oleron finally, helplessly perceives her, or is she an absolute, amoral power, capable of raising him to transcendence had he a single will but instead giving him the strength to destroy himself by means of the normal human contradictions of his soul? In other words, does she appear evil because she is evil or because she empowers the evil in his nature?

Though the story may seem moralistic because Onions comments directly on Oleron’s failures, it proves, nevertheless, a highly effective tale of terror, in part because of the ambiguities concerning the ghost’s reality and its nature.