In Henry James's ambiguous, paranoid novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), a governess is left in charge of two children in an isolated Essex country house. Over time, she becomes convinced the children are communing with the ghosts of former servants, who appear to them, at first at a distance and then ever closer, threatening to lead them to damnation. By the end, a child is dead, but we still don't know: Were the ghosts real, or were they in the governess's head?
With The Turn of the Key, Ruth Ware (The Woman in Cabin 10) offers a clever and elegant update to James's story, one with less ambiguity but its own eerie potency. Rowan Caine accepts a nannying job at a gorgeous house in the Scottish Highlands, wired with a smart home app called, horribly, "Happy," that lets its owners surveil every room in the house from afar, control the lights, heat, and locks — and even talk through speakers in the walls.
Ware creates suspense with sinister precision. We know that Rowan is writing from prison. We don't know what happened, except that something went very wrong, something to do with "all the sleepless nights and the loneliness and the isolation and the craziness of the house and the cameras and everything else." We know that a child is dead, and that Rowan says she didn't kill her.
Rowan's nannying is colored from the start by the possibility of surveillance, and it is with a "strange performative feeling" that she plants kisses on heads and cuts up bananas, never knowing if her employers might be looking in. Her unease grows as the app starts to malfunction — doors lock themselves, lights flicker, speakers blare suddenly in the middle of the night, and then — this part can't just be a bug — strange footsteps pace above her head at night. It doesn't help that the children are odd, "hostile little creatures," who seem to know things she doesn't. Why did the last four nannies leave suddenly?
The Turn of the Key contains all the most pleasurable hallmarks of the genre: secret garden, handsome handyman, ghostly footsteps, a locked attic, whispers in the village of hauntings and deaths, a scribbled warning from the last nanny. Henry James leaves his story ambiguous, which means on rereading it becomes more, not less creepy. Rereading Ware, you admire her cleverness, the way she hid her tracks and left bright threads winding in different directions, but the charge is gone. But though mystery is solved, she offers the possibility of another kind of horror, one that is ongoing and very real.
In the past few years, the thriller has become the natural place to interrogate the increasing role of surveillance in our lives. The Girl Before, a 2017 thriller by JP Delaney, is a horror novel about a house built by a creepy "techno-minimalist" architect, a house that ultimately ends up as a tool for controlling its young female inhabitants. Both houses are managed by an app. Both have a history of death and violence. Both lack keyholes.
Surveillance and home technology slot easily into the conventions of horror: They bring the sense that your environment is invaded and controlled from afar, and that you are never quite as alone as you might wish.
The basic premise of ghost stories — that invisible intelligences prickle, unnoticed, around us, that we are being watched by unknown actors, with unknown intentions, that objects can become animated and think for themselves — has come true. The Turn of the Key, and novels like it, point to a new reality. We are all, constantly, haunted.