I promised you Henry James, and that's where I'm going to start. Just diving right into the nerd-fest.
So far, I've read three Henry James novels: The Americans, Portrait of a Lady, and most recently The Turn of the Screw. I've enjoyed all three, but I'm starting to feel a bit cheated that I was introduced to his writing through the perfectly-fine-but-ultimately-forgettable The Americans. It was a requirement for a freshman year English literature class at Michigan. Portrait of a Lady was much longer and yet much more engaging, and The Turn of the Screw was phenomenal.
In The Turn of the Screw, a young woman is recruited to act as a governess/nanny for two young children, one boy and one girl. She is instructed from the start to not to bother the children's uncle (their legal guardian) with any news or complaints about the house, the children's progress, etc., because he's a warm and generous man who was totally ready to be a father figure. Of course, due to the nanny's obvious lack of support and no clear path out of any trouble, a couple of creepy ghosts show up and start tormenting her. But instead of writing to the uncle and saying "Hey, sir, your house is haunted; do you think we could move to one of your other residences?" she decides she's just going to have to buck up, deal with their presence, and protect the children from these ghosts (a man and a woman, who she learns are former residents/employees of the house).
Now, this could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill ghost story, but Henry James is not a run-of-the-mill author. He decided to tell this story in first person from the nanny's perspective. Throughout the entire novel, the nanny is the only one who definitely, 100% admits to seeing these ghosts. There are signs that the children can see them, at least through her interpretation of their behavior. She makes close friends with the maid, who identifies them as the former troubled employees based on the nanny's description of their appearance, but when confronted almost face-to-face at the lake with the female spectre, the maid is unable to see what the nanny is talking about. No one else on staff complains about being haunted, and no one takes off suddenly with or without explanation. By the time the reader reaches the catastrophic end of the novel, there is absolutely no light shed on whether or not the ghosts are real or are merely figments of the nanny's imagination. In fact, James does his best to blur that line more and more as time goes on.
Having finished reading this book around mid-morning, I spent the rest of that day reliving the entire experience, trying to dig up clues that would prove the nanny's innocence and sanity, but I couldn't come up with anything conclusive. I even delved into the scholarly essays at the back at the book looking for answers, but since those types of essays revel in ambiguity, I came up empty-handed. In the end, the only thing I knew for sure is that I was (and am) in awe of the deftness of James' literary hand. I'm sure I'll be working my way through the rest of his published legacy as the years progress. Stay tuned.