Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
James, Henry

(1843-1916) US-born writer who lived in the UK from about 1876, dying there after a long and extremely prolific career. He is a central figure in the evolution of the Modernist novel, and is of particular interest to Supernatural Fiction for having effectively created – by precept and example – the Unreliable Narrator as a mode. The unnamed woman who writes her experiences down (for later oral recounting) in "The Turn of the Screw" (1898 Colliers Weekly) is profoundly unreliable, and the story serves as one of Tzvetan Todorov's touchstone cases in his Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970; trans Richard Howard as The Fantastic 1973 US) for his argument that the Fantastic can be defined as an uncanny hovering of Perception between belief in (or recognition of) the supernatural, and disbelief. "The Turn of the Screw" – which appears in The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw; Covering End (coll 1898), and which has been frequently reprinted since (an initial separate printing as The Turn of the Screw [1898] is sometimes listed as the first printing, but only a few copies were printed, for copyright defence) – has been subjected to a very wide variety of interpretations. They range from acceptance of the reality of the Ghosts seen by the narrating governess to an entirely mundane reading of the text: that, under pressure – already sexually perturbed by the unobtainable master whose Doppelgänger she fabricates in the form of the ghostly Quint, and thrust into a position in which she is entirely responsible for the two children under her supervision – she has psychotically imagined the whole Haunting, that the act of aggression has been a projection from this world to a nonexistent other, and – most horribly – that the last sentence of the text shows her frightening the elder child to death. E F Bleiler's preferred reading – that although ghosts may not have existed prior to her arrival, the intensity of her focus may have invoked the supernatural – seems the textual reading most likely to confirm, if only in this case, the Todorovan template. That the tale is open to varied interpretations is evidenced by the two very different movies that have been based on it: The Innocents (1961) and The Nightcomers (1971).

That the governess is inextricably perplexed by Eros, and that the story may also be read as dramatizing a refusal of transcendence, points to the story's interest for the student of fantasy: because the governess's refusal bars her from the kind of psychopomp-guided epiphany experienced (for instance) by the protagonists in the most interesting of E M Forster's short fiction, and because the refusal embedded in this central example of supernatural fiction usefully emphasizes the difference between this form and full Fantasy.

Most of HJ's other supernatural fiction is of less interest. The early stories in particular, influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne – HJ's Hawthorne (1879) is an informed critical study – tend to turn on incursions of the supernatural in the form of Ghosts from the past, often jilted or frustrated lovers who attempt to frustrate later joinings. A late exception is "The Great Good Place" (1900 Scribner's Magazine; in The Soft Side coll 1900), whose protagonist enters what seems almost a Posthumous-Fantasy version of Heaven, but returns, deeply refreshed, to the mortal world. In addition to The Soft Side, collections containing supernatural fictions include A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (coll 1875), The Lesson of the Master. The Marriages. The Pupil. Brooksmith. The Solution. Sir Edmund Orme (coll 1892), The Private Life. The Wheel of Time. Lord Beaupre. The Visit. Collaboration. Owen Wingrave (coll 1893), The Real Thing and Other Tales (coll 1893), Embarrassments: The Figure in the Carpet/Glasses/The Next Time/The Way it Came (coll 1896), and The Travelling Companions (coll 1919). All HJ's supernatural fictions are assembled as The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (coll dated 1948 but 1949 US; cut vt Ghostly Tales of Henry James 1963; full text vt Stories of the Supernatural 1970) ed Leon Edel, using wherever possible HJ's revised texts; the tales also appear in The Complete Tales of Henry James (coll 1962-1964 12 vols) ed Edel.

HJ's closest approach to full fantasy is The Sense of the Past (1917), an uncompleted novel. The protagonist of this 20th-century Timeslip tale, obsessed with his past, enters the early 19th century – through a Portal in a door – where he occupies the body of a counterpart, who himself, by way of Balance, has come forward in time. Just as the complexities begin to mount, the story ends. Partially drafted not long after he completed The Sacred Fount (1901), and added to in early 1914, HJ's fragment arguably represents a reactive and prophetic response to a world sliding into the moral abyss of World War I.

After the outbreak of WWI, HJ wrote no more fiction. [JC]

Henry James


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.