The Turn of The Screw

Those who know me best know I have this thing about ghost stories. Not only do I love them pure and simply, so much so that in spite of all the navel-gazing I can engage in, I’ve never even bothered to examine why I might be so drawn to them, I love the sort of conversational down-time that leads people to reveal ghost stories to one another.

Luckily (or not, depending upon how you view things), I’ve had plenty of employment chock-full of the sort of heel-cooling that lends itself to the telling of ghost stories. Nothing like cleaning national park cabins in the rain to get two maids making beds in the mood for swapping ghost stories! Smoke breaks from waiting tables: also a good source. Ditto long aimless car trips taken in your twenties.

I’ve never heard a bad ghost story, because even the most rudimentary snippets of one carry so much cultural weight that you can pretty much fill in the blanks yourself. Even the worst storyteller can raise the hairs on the back of your neck with a few choice ghostly sentences.

Stay-at-home-momdom, it turns out, sometimes involves that same sort of downtime, particularly when one spends a lot of time pushing a stroller in the company of other moms. Taking walks for over five years, I’ve heard fascinating things (all to be kept private for the sake of the tellers) over the years.

Yesterday, while walking, I learned that someone who knows someone that I know is being troubled by ghosts. The family is newly moved into an aging grande dame of a Victorian house that when they purchased it was sadly in need of a face lift, which, threats of divorce and bankruptcy aside, they were thrilled to deliver.***

The house is now freshly-painted, wired for electronics, pristine, lovely.

But late at night, after the rest of the family has gone to sleep, the mother of the house has begun hearing what sounds like the rattle and turn of an ornate flourish of brass doorknob, the one attached to a particular closet door in the upstairs hallway. She tends to hear the noise most often when she’s brushing her teeth. She rushes out of the bathroom and peers down the hallway: nothing but late night and sleeping house. Goes back into the bathroom to rinse and spit, and there it is again, that small insistent rattle.

The closet, the friend who knows the friend tells me, is the only interior door in the house that had a sturdy latch on it, placed at adult height.

What do you want to bet, the friend tells me as we walk along, that that was the Victorian time-out closet?

I’m too lazy to look it up, but wasn’t it the presence of a child in a ghost story that Henry James considered the turn of the screw? Ghosts are all well and good but throw a kid into the mix: well, now you’re cooking with gas!

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting on the floor of the bathroom while Younger Girleen fumbles toward figuring out potty-training (this will come as no surprise to astute readers). I mean a lot of time. In fact, I spend more time sitting on the bathroom floor conversing with Younger Girleen while she sits on the potty than I probably do on anything else right now (this may be why I’m so concerned about effective use of my free time).

This afternoon we were having one of our periodic bathroom klatsches when Younger Girleen looked up.

Daddy’s here! she said brightly.

Daddy’s at work, I explained.

Then who’s that man?

What man?

That man I hear talking?


Where is he talking?

In the back yard.

What is he saying? I pursued, curious.

This took a little thought on Younger Girleen’s part. He’s saying Mama, she said. He’s saying Mama, mama, I want my mama.


God help me, I actually stood up and flicked back the curtain and peered out into the back yard.

Everybody wants their Mama, even ghosts in the backyard.

***Interestingly, the house is in the neighborhood that was also the location of the very best ghost story I ever heard, told around a campfire at Big Bend. I’ve concluded this particular neighborhood is Atlanta’s ghostliest, but local readers should feel free to put in their votes…

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One thought on “The Turn of The Screw

  1. Raised a few hairs there…

    even the most rudimentary snippets of one carry so much cultural weight that you can pretty much fill in the blanks yourself

    Well put.

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