The Haunting of Bly Manor

By a funny coincidence, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw—the novels on which Mike Flanagan has (loosely) based the two seasons of his Netflix anthology series, The Haunting—are both books I read as a teenager and didn’t get on with. Hill House offended my expectations of how a haunted house story was "supposed" to work, by refusing to solve the mystery of the titular house or deliver up a standard heroic plot in response to its horrors. It was only years later, having fallen in love with Jackson's other novels and short stories, that I returned to Hill House and realized that this refusal to solve itself was, in fact, the point, and the source of the novel's chilling horror. In honor of The Haunting of Bly Manor, I decided on a similar return to The Turn of the Screw, hoping to once again discover greater depths as an adult reader. Instead, and to my surprise, I found myself having almost exactly the same reaction to the book at nearly-forty as I did at fourteen.

Published in 1898, The Turn of the Screw is the first person narrative of a young, nameless governess who is engaged as the caretaker for two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. Soon after her arrival at Bly Manor, the governess encounters two ghosts, whom she identifies as Peter Quint, a servant with ideas above his station, and Miss Jessel, her predecessor. It's eventually revealed that Quint and Jessel were in a relationship, and had drawn the children into their circle. The governess becomes convinced that the children can also see the ghosts and are lying to her about it. In her efforts to wring a confession out of the children and thus save them, as she believes, from being damned along with Quint and Jessel, the governess ends up traumatizing Flora, and causing Miles's death.

The question that has occupied critics of The Turn of the Screw for more than a century is the reliability of its narrator. Are the ghosts real, or is the governess mad, reading motivations and emotions into people, with no basis in reality? The story's baroque, run-on sentences and claustrophobic storytelling lock us so thoroughly into the governess's point of view that it is impossible to know how much of what she tells us is real, and how much her own surmise or invention. It is thus entirely possible that the only danger to the children of Bly Manor is the person charged with protecting them. Personally, I think this ambiguity has been exaggerated—Turn's framing story speaks quite glowingly of the governess, describing her as a kind, intelligent person, who apparently went on to live a thoroughly normal life, continuing in her profession with no complaints. But even as a young reader, the difficulty I had with the novel wasn't its ambiguity, but with the fact that whichever reading you choose to apply to it, the governess is a terrible person and an abusive caretaker.

Even if you assume that the ghosts, and the danger to the children, are real, the governess's actions are unjustifiable. If she thinks the children are being haunted by ghosts in Bly Manor, why doesn't she remove them from the manor? On the contrary, the governess is almost fanatically resistant to the frequently -made suggestion that she contact her employer and let him know that things are awry. She wants to "save" the children herself, and it is ultimately impossible not to conclude that what matters to her isn't their safety, but her own heroism. The relationship between Quint and Jessel (with its inappropriate crossing of class lines) and the two's friendship with the children, offend the governess on a personal level. The fact that the children—whom she repeatedly describes as angelically beautiful and good-natured—have been lying to her similarly offends her, and her ideas of what makes a "good" child. What she wants isn't to protect the children from Quint and Jessel, but to win, to wring out of them an admission of their lies and in so doing, somehow, claim them for herself. That victory ends up costing both children dearly.

What's particularly frustrating about The Turn of the Screw is that this is, obviously, a simply gangbusters premise for a ghost story, if only one was willing to face up to it. A parent (or parental stand-in) protecting children from a supernatural menace is a time-honored story, and the real turn of the screw is to suggest that the parent is actually the menace (or worse, that the menace is real, but the only person who can save you from it is so wrapped up in their own ego as to become a danger to you themselves). But James, in refusing to allow any condemnation of the governess's actions except the suggestion that the whole thing is in her head, forestalls that reading. If you want to read Turn as a ghost story, you also have to accept that the governess is brave, decent, and most of all right—right about the danger to the children's souls, and right to force them to confront the ghosts, even at such a heavy cost to themselves.

I say all this not only to exorcise some ghosts of my own that I've clearly been carrying around for a while, where this book is concerned, but to explain my mingled hopes and fears for The Haunting of Bly Manor. In my extremely mixed review of The Haunting of Hill House, I praised Flanagan's expert scaremongering, clever plotting, and delicate handling of his characters, and excoriated his profound misunderstanding of the book he had based his story on, and the turn towards cloying sentimentality that the miniseries took towards its end. The Turn of the Screw, therefore, seemed to offer a perfect opportunity for redemption. Its evocative premise is ripe ground for retelling and deepening—as many writers before Flanagan have already done. On the other hand, the man who gave us "what if Hill House is nice, actually" seems like exactly the wrong person to entrust with a story as dark and ambiguous as Turn is—and could be.

Flanagan himself seems to have realized this, because his version of Turn (which also incorporates elements from several other of James's ghost stories, including "Sir Edmund Orme", "The Jolly Corner", and "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes") categorically rejects the darkness and ambiguity inherent in the original. There's never any question, for example, whether characters are really seeing ghosts or are emotionally disturbed (even when the series would clearly like us to be in doubt). The children's caretakers are all well-intentioned and focused on their wellbeing (and the one exception is clearly marked as such). It will probably not come as much of a shock if I tell you that Miles lives. In a relatively short career, Flanagan has made his name as a purveyor of cuddly horror. The scares are real and effective, but in the end, love conquers all, family proves enduring, and everyone walks away having gotten a bit of supernaturally-charged therapy.

As disappointed as I am not to have gotten the version of The Turn of the Screw that I wanted, I have to admit that Flanagan's approach suits that novel better than it does The Haunting of Hill House. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that unlike Hill House, Bly Manor doesn't start out as one thing and end up as another. Like the novel, Bly Manor opens with a framing story in which a nameless woman (Carla Gugino, one of several Hill House alumni who return here, which is nice enough even if it results in some comically awful fake accents) regales an audience with a ghost story. But here, the audience are assembled on the night before a wedding—hardly a time for tales of religiously tinged child abuse. When we meet our governess—Victoria Pedretti as Dani Clayton, an American teacher who, in 1987, is hired by Lord Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to be an au pair to his orphaned niece and nephew—she is clearly damaged and running away from something, but also plucky and no-nonsense. In her interactions with the children, she strikes a perfect teacherly balance between kindness and firmness, never losing her temper or indulging in sadistic punishments. From the outset, Bly Manor wants us to know that whatever danger lies within the titular house's walls, it doesn't come from its main character.

If there's a discordant note in Bly Manor's opening episodes, in fact, it comes from the children themselves. Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) are not the angels they were in James's original, the ones whose sudden revelation as liars and manipulators so shocks their governess. They are, for the most part, normal children, sometimes sweet and sometimes annoying. But from the start, there is also something clearly wrong with them, even if Dani chooses not to see it. They are alternately childish and too-adult, normally rambunctious one minute, and suddenly cruel and malicious the next. Miles, in particular, has bouts of openly predatory behavior towards Dani, stroking her cheek possessively, or speaking to her with a dismissiveness that doesn't suit his age.

As if in direct response to the 19th century childrearing attitudes of the original novel, Dani—and the other adults in Miles and Flora's lives, housekeeper Hannah Grose (T'nia Miller), cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), and even one of Miles's teachers at boarding school (Jim Piddock)—respond to this behavior with endless solicitude and understanding. The refrain of "it's understandable, given what they've been through" repeats itself again and again throughout the miniseries. Everyone keeps giving Miles and Flora second chances, trying to talk them through the feelings they're acting out, and failing to understand why none of these efforts are having any effect.

Bly Manor tries to maintain some ambiguity in its opening chapters over whether the children are merely troubled, or genuinely haunted. But one of the problems of this miniseries is that most people watching it will have already seen Hill House, and the rules and conventions of storytelling in both shows are largely the same. In Hill House, the ghosts and boogeymen menacing the Crain children were initially mere flickers in the corner of one's eye, slowly coming into focus over the course of the season until finally, the sheer extent of the house's hauntedness came into full view. So when those shapes in the corner appear again in Bly Manor, we know what they mean. We're on the lookout for the hidden faces and unaccountable shadows with which Flanagan seeded almost every scene in Hill House. When Dani knocks over one of Flora's dolls, and she and Miles react with alarm and then "accidentally" lock Dani in Flora's closet, after which she finds muddy footprints throughout the house, we know that they're not just being bad kids—that there is some danger stalking Bly Manor that only they are aware of. The exact contours of this horror take the length of the season to unravel, but the rules are clear almost from the first episode.

This can make for frustrating viewing, but it also creates an intriguing tension between Bly Manor and The Turn of the Screw. Unlike her literary predecessor, Dani, and the other adults in Miles and Flora's life, are desperate to understand them, to make allowances for them, to give them space to process their feelings. But Miles and Flora don't need understanding. They need help, and everyone in their life is so blind to that fact that the children have essentially given up on getting it, resorting to misbehavior not because it'll gain them attention, but because they've rightly concluded that the responsibility of keeping everyone in Bly Manor alive has fallen to them.

Even worse, the only people who are aware of what Miles and Flora are going through and willing to talk them on their own level are Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen), their uncle's conniving driver and assistant, and Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), their former au pair. Or rather, the ghosts of same (another pitfall of a too-knowing audience—when Hannah tells Dani that Peter embezzled money from Henry and then disappeared, I don't think it takes any familiarity with the original novel for the audience to immediately conclude that he never left the grounds of the manor).

In flashbacks, we see a still-living Peter try to induct Miles into his manipulative life philosophy, seeing people as "locks" that can be opened with the right key. Other flashbacks show us Peter exercising those techniques with Rebecca, with whom he soon falls into an abusive relationship, alternately charming and threatening. As ghosts, too, the deceased lovers are engaged in some sort of plot, and long before we learn what it is, the fact that they are the only ones with whom the children can fully confide—and that some of the children's misbehavior is clearly at their instigation—is increasingly worrying.

There's the potential here for a very interesting subversion of the original novel, in which the children are simultaneously "bad", and the only responsible parties in the house, and the governess is dangerous not because of her own ego but because she fails to see what's actually happening to her charges. Other subplots in Bly Manor carry forward the theme of caretaking and its failures. Henry is unable to face the children because he blames himself for their parents' deaths, which ends up leaving them vulnerable to abusers. Jamie and Peter both turn out to have abusive backgrounds, but whereas she got help from well-meaning foster parents and psychologists, he was left to stew in his own self-recrimination, which has left him, as an adult, incapable of relating to anyone except through manipulation and abuse.

If Hill House was a story about family, in its early episodes Bly Manor seems like a story about the more tenuous, more complicated bonds between children and the strangers whose job it is to take care of them, and whose influence can be monumental, for good and for ill. But the more the series reveals about the full extent of what's happening in the house and where the evil haunting it comes from, the more it loses sight of Miles and Flora. The later episodes in the season can feel more exciting than the earlier ones, because they finally deliver some explanations of what's happening at Bly, and what the children's strange behavior in the early parts of the season was about. But they are also something of a grab-bag, delivering an entire array of stories for the adult characters, each on a different theme.

Peter and Rebecca's story is about toxic love, as the bright, ambitious young woman is hollowed out by her obsession with a man who is possessive, violent, and clearly up to no good. Dani and Henry are both haunted by their own apparitions—a shadowy figure with glowing eyes, and a sneering, malevolent version of himself, respectively—who represent the grief and guilt that they are both carrying over past losses, and which they need to lay to rest in order to hold on to the good things in their lives—for Henry to form a family with Miles and Flora, and for Dani to pursue a romantic connection with Jamie. Hannah and Owen have both suffered setbacks in their lives that have left them wondering if they're now both stuck, whether their comfortable but unsatisfying positions at Bly are the best they can ever hope for. And the season's penultimate episode takes us back to the seventeenth century, and to the origin of Bly's horror with Viola Lloyd (Kate Siegel), the beautiful, vivacious lady of the manor who is trapped in a "living death" by a lingering illness, and whose bitterness and rage at the people who have moved on from her, in life and after her death, cause her to transform into the terrifying Lady in the Lake, who stalks the manor at night.

All of these stories are well-executed in their own right—the fifth episode, which focuses on Hannah and her slow realization of what has happened to her at Bly, is the highlight of the season. Together, they also explain not only what is happening in the manor, but the unique way in which the ghosts trapped in it experience time, moving back and forth between memories which they repeat in an endless loop until their consciousness begins to fade away—an idea which the show literalizes through the eerie image of ghosts whose facial features have melted away, leaving only a blank surface. But taken together, they give the season a scattershot feeling. Take, for example, the way that Dani and Henry's clearly metaphorical hauntings clash with the entirely literal ones in Bly Manor. It's not that you can't incorporate both readings into the same story (this is something that Hill House did very well), but in Bly Manor they feel like two completely different stories that happen to coexist in the same show.

It's the children, of course, that could have tied all these stories together, precisely because, while the rest of the characters act as viewpoints from which we can piece together the exact shape of Bly Manor's haunting, Miles and Flora are the only people in the manor who are fully cognizant of what's going on around them, and making active choices to affect their situation. But the more the audience learns, the more passive Miles and Flora become, precisely at the point where their perspective was most essential to the story.

Peter and Rebecca's plan, it turns out, is to permanently possess the children. The two have already been flitting in and out of Miles and Flora's heads, leaving the children "tucked away" in their own memories. But towards the end of the season, they demand to be let in permanently, for which they need Miles and Flora's consent. This should be the key moment of the series, in which Miles and Flora, so exhausted by grief and the responsibility of protecting those who claim to be protecting them, give up. But by the time we reach this point, Bly Manor itself has tucked the children so far away that we no longer have any sense of them as people making choices. Flora gets a bit of a showcase in episode six, but this mostly serves to fill in backstory about how she came to communicate with the ghosts of Bly Manor. And Miles, whose relationship with Peter is more complex and puts him in greater moral peril, all but disappears in the latter half of the season.

So the biggest choice of the season, and the one that could have capped its one coherent and continuous character arc, is entirely missing. Some lip service is paid to the notion that Peter and Rebecca have promised the children a "forever house" where they can live in their memories of their parents. But so little work has been done to seed this desire—the concept of the forever house is introduced almost in the same breath that as the children agreeing to give up their bodies—that it doesn't really land.

The focus, instead, is on the governesses, Dani and Rebecca, who finally step up to save the children in their care. (Rebecca, having pretended to go along with Peter's plan, explains to Flora that "no one should ever need that much help; not from anyone else", which feels like a thesis statement for a story we never really got, a teachable moment for a character who no longer seems capable of being taught.) And Dani gets the season's final heroic moment, in which she finally puts the horror of Bly Manor to rest. But in the process, Miles and Flora are lost, even as they are saved.

In an epilogue ten years after the events of the series, Owen tells Dani and Jamie that the children have forgotten everything that happened to them at Bly Manor. They all agree that this is for the best—the framing story even turns out to be a way to tell them, as adults and in a way that won't traumatize them, about the sacrifices made on their behalf. But this feels like a way of flattening out complexity. Miles and Flora spent months protecting others at great cost to themselves, and at the end of that ordeal they were willing to, essentially, kill themselves. They were prevented only by the actions of others, not because they came to the realization that they want their own lives, painful as they might be. Erasing those memories, of courage and of surrender, doesn't feel like healing, but like papering over a painful past—the very thing that, as both seasons of The Haunting have been at pains to remind us, usually leads to disaster down the line.

There's a degree to which this is me blaming The Haunting of Bly Manor for not being the story I wanted it to be. Towards the end of its season, the show pivots again, this time into a story about the double-edged nature of love, how truly loving someone means accepting the inevitability of losing them. The finale is essentially its own story, which follows Dani and Jamie over the years as they deal with the consequences of the choice Dani made in order to save the children. And if you look back through the season, there are echoes of this theme throughout it—it is what Peter refuses to do for Rebecca, kickstarting the series's events; and the series opens with a guest at the aforementioned wedding giving a toast that is all about the inevitability of death and separation. As ever, this theme is handled well (and let's not downplay the importance of making the emotional crux of the series a romance between two women), but as the thesis statement for Bly Manor, it feels no less forced than any of the other ideas the season had gestured at—for one thing, who the hell gives a death-themed wedding toast without being immediately disinvited from all future family functions?

The children's story feels, to me, much more organic, and perhaps more importantly, much more justified in its subversion of the original novel than what Flanagan did to The Haunting of Hill House. In its handling of Miles and Flora, there is the hint of the story Bly Manor could have been—a worthy retelling of The Turn of the Screw that addresses its problems and at least gestures at the original story's darkness. The choice to turn away from that story leaves Bly Manor still a good show, but also haunted by what might have been.


Andrew Stevens said…
I'm curious whether every season of the show is going to be about Victoria Pedretti sacrificing herself to save everyone around her. I found Bly Manor all right, but it didn't approach the brilliance of Hill House.
steven johnson said…
Reading the governess as the danger asks the question, how does she kill Miles? Selfishness and meanness in a caretaker do not generally cause death. It's not even clear how Flora's trauma makes her react the way she does. (As usual, it is unspecified but the simplest reading is, Flora screams profanities shocking to most sensibilities, today's included.) Also, given the clear instructions not to bother him, telling the uncle means getting fired, not rescuing Miles and Flora. Simply taking the children would put her in jail and the children would simply be returned.

There is a sort of culpability, but not so clear, which reads the uncle=Quint, his man who he gives free rein and the governess=Miss Jessel, who was besotted with Quint. Part, maybe all, of the governess' determination to solve the problem is not about winning for herself, but winning for him. She is infatuated with the uncle. In this reading, she is haunted by Jessel and Quint, because she is re-enacting the essence of their disaster. Thus her guilt, her failure, is, Jessel's. If as seems likely Jessel committed suicide because of her pregnancy, the governess too ends with a dead child.
Aonghus Fallon said…
Whereas ‘The Innocents’ is a classic, with Deborah Kerry pretty much nailing the character and the ambiguity at the heart of the story without losing audience sympathy, I found the original story - which I tried to read afterwards - pretty unreadable, thanks to its overwrought prose.*

I can think of two other works that I did find frustrating for precisely the reasons you describe, though. One was C. S. Lewis’s book ‘Till We Have Faces’, the other was ‘Frailty’ (Bill Paxton’s supernatural debut).

* I kept thinking of that Max Beerbohm cartoon, in which James is peering at his own hand while standing in a dense fog: ‘It was, therefore, not without something of a shock that he, in this, to him, so very congenial atmosphere, now perceived that a vision of the hand which he had, at a venture, held up within an inch or so of his face was, with an almost awful clarity, being adumbrated.’

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