One cannot discuss the horror canon without mentioning The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The story features a new nanny who arrives at an estate that is as ominous as its inhabitants. The novel uses many classic elements of gothic horror fiction — a secluded house, the potential for ghosts, the slow unraveling of the protagonist’s mind, and a devastating third-act culmination.
Like James, R. L. Stine deserves a place in the horror canon. His stories provide an entry point for younger readers, influencing generations to confront what scares them. He might be the best gateway into the genre. Age-appropriate horror. Kids read his books under the covers in the dark of night and at sleepovers with their friends. A cozy introduction to a genre intended to make you uncomfortable.
I would describe this episode’s book as “Baby’s First The Turn of the Screw.” And I mean that without an ounce of sarcasm or condescension. This is a fantastic introduction to gothic horror literature, and I can’t think of a compliment more appropriate than comparing this book to one of the greatest ghost stories in literature.
Just like The Turn of the Screw, The Hidden Evil is written in a frame narrative. Timothy Fier is having a good time with his friends when the subject of ghosts comes up. Timothy is apprehensive about sharing his ghost story because it’s just so damn scary and they won’t have any fingernails by the end of the story. My dire fingernail situation is due to undiagnosed stimming turning into a lifelong habit. But that’s just me, your scary mileage may vary. Either way, Timothy tells us that the story started ten years ago.
Sisters Maggie and Henrietta are watching their father die. Constables show up at the door and arrest Maggie for murder. Their father was poisoned and Maggie is the prime suspect. Henrietta vows to help her sister as Maggie professes her innocence all the way to jail.
Four months later, Maggie is still in jail. She has been tired and found guilty. Her sister, Henrietta, arrives to say her last goodbyes. Unsurprisingly, she has a confession of her own.
Henrietta turned and glanced down the cell-lined hall to make sure no prisoners or guards were in earshot. “I killed Father!”
Maggie tried to speak, but no sound came out. She swallowed hard. “You?”
“Of course. You had young men begging to take you on outings. But I am not as pretty as you. What chance did I have to snare a handsome young man without Father’s inheritance? And dear old Father showed no signs of giving up the ghost.”
“Oh, Henrietta, no,” Maggie cried. “Don’t you know Father would have given you whatever you wanted? I’m sure he planned a sizeable dowry for you.”
“No, Maggie. Father would have given you whatever you wanted. He only cared about you,” Henrietta insisted. “So I sneaked into the house. You and Father were yelling at each other, so of course you did not hear me. I stirred the poison into his wine goblet and planted the rest in your room. Simple.”
The entire family fortune is in Henrietta’s hands, and Maggie will be hanged.
The executioner arrives to collect Maggie. He brings her to a narrow staircase, pulls off his hood, gives her a black dress, and orders her to escape in a carriage. The boy and his mother save Maggie from the gallows, give her money, and tell her to leave town. They saved her because they think Maggie is innocent and Maggie’s family was kind to them when their house burned down. They don’t reappear, so you don’t need to know their names. Mr. Plot Device and Mother We Gotta Keep This Moving.
Maggie starts a new life as Maggie Thompson and takes a job as a governess to two children in an isolated mansion — just like the nameless protagonist of The Turn of the Screw. Also like the novel, the father is often away, leaving the governess with the staff.
Every good gothic estate needs a name and this one is called “Tanglewood.” And every good gothic estate needs staff, each one more suspicious than the last. The Cook is referred to simply as “Cook.” The maid is Mary. Both of these characters serve as the Mrs. Grose of this novel. Maggie confides in these characters so we understand her as a character and they provide Maggie, as well as the reader, with the necessary information in regard to the history of the estate.
To complete the creepy estate, we have creepy, regency children. Andrew is the first one to approach Maggie. His gregarious nature contrasts with his brother, Garret, who throws a vase at Maggie as she first enters the mansion. Then Garret runs into his room and throws more objects. Maggie tries to console the boy, saying that she’s not trying to replace his dear mother and he must miss her so much. Garret stops her and yells that he hates his mother.
Maggie investigates the previous governesses. Also like Miss Jessel of The Turn of the Screw, the previous governess ran off suddenly. Meanwhile, Garret is continuing his strange child behavior through drawings and randomly yelling. He even leaves a life-sized drawing of birds pecking out Maggie’s eyes in her room.
While Garret is being creepy, Andrew is giving extensive estate tours and asking to go to the circus. The tour brings her to a hall of portraits, the stables, and the hedge maze. All this while Garret stares at them from the shadows.
Maggie wants to get help with Garret so she enters the library, the exclusive domain of Mr. Melbourne. She doesn’t find the man, but she does find a silver key. Garret finds her with the key and yells that his mother won’t like it, to which Maggie tells him that his mother is dead.
“Do not say that!” Garret screamed. “Never say that! Mother can hear you! She can hear everything!”
“You must know she is in the house!” Garret screamed. “Do you not hear her crying every night?”
That night, crying wakes Maggie and her investigation into the sound brings her to the tower. Instead of a ghost, she finds Andrew. He says that the locked door was his mother’s Sick Room, where she spent her last days.
Maggie returns to bed after tucking in Andrew. However, she does not go back to sleep. She finds the body of the cat that she spent six seconds with and a note that says that “curiosity killed the cat.” I guess it’s better than a horse’s head, but still traumatizing.
She buries the cat and as she passes by a window, she sees the ghost of Mrs. Melbourne. She flees from the window but runs right into the absent Mr. Melbourne. They spend some time near the fire and just as quickly as two pages, she has a crush. At the end of the conversation, Mr. Melbourne insists she stays away from the tower.
The next day, Mr. Melbourne is actually around and takes them for a horse ride. Then the horses escape and flames consume the stable. Thank you for the fun equine day, Mr. Melbourne.
If that wasn’t enough, Maggie falls into a well. She manages to get herself out. She suspects that Garret pushed her in after she found his ring near the well. She shows the ring to Andrew and he bursts out.
“That’s where he killed her. That’s where Garret killed our mother!” Andrew cried.
Andrew claims that Garret pushed their mother into the well. She got out, but she was very ill. She spent her remaining days in the tower room. Every night she cries because she wants revenge on Garret but she’s trapped in the tower.
Oh yeah, Mary is dead. Maggie finds Garret holding a knife over her dead body. Maggie runs to the tower room while Garret chases after her yelling, “Wait! You don’t understand!” She reaches the tower room and unlocks the door with the key she found in the library. She pleads with the ghost to help her. Instead, the ghost says that Maggie can never have her husband and chokes her.
Suddenly, we’re back with Timothy in 1858. Mrs. Fier wanders in and sends the 19th-century teens into conniptions. She leaves and Timothy returns to his story while watching a figure who is sitting in the shadows.
Even though Maggie basically accused him of murder, Garret comes to her rescue, interrupting the ghostly choking. She runs away, breaks her leg, and enters the hedge maze. Someone pushes her into the dirt. It’s Andrew.
“Mother and I do not like people trying to take her place,” he said sweetly. “You made Mother and me very, very angry.”
It runs out that Andrew killed the other governesses for his ghost mother, including the maid, and he tricked Garret into picking up the knife. Then he slashes at Maggie.
As he gets ready to strike the killing blow, Garret shoots Andrew with a musket. Maggie confirms Andrew’s death because it’ll take Garret ten minutes to get off another shot. That’s not explicitly stated in the book, but I’m assuming since it’s 1847. With the death of her beloved Andrew, the ghost fades away. Maggie apologizes to Garret, Mr. Melbourne and Maggie marry, and the three of them rebuild their lives in Boston, not too far from the storyteller.
Oh, and remember Maggie’s sister from the beginning? The one who framed her for murder? Well, she killed her new husband and confessed to murdering her father. Maggie doesn’t have to hide anymore.
Fast forward to 1858, Timothy concludes his story, and his guests leave — except for the figure in the corner.
How much more frightened would they be if they knew that I changed the name of the family from Fier to Melbourne when I told the tale. If they knew I changed my own name to Garret. And gave my stepmother the name Maggie.
From the shadows, Andrew appears and lunges at Timothy!
While the ending of The Turn of the Screw is less sensational and more ambiguous, The Hidden Evil is a solid introduction to gothic horror. It features a governess, a mysterious master of the house, a beautiful yet bleak estate, creepy children, and, most importantly, the ghosts of the past.
But even if the story wasn’t reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw, I would still enjoy this book. It’s creepy, it keeps moving forward, and the mystery behind the ghost in the tower was interesting. The frame narrative was a little contrived, but I have a soft spot for this kind of storytelling, and, honestly, it’s contrived in The Turn of the Screw, also. And finally, there were no slave-owning protagonists, a criticism I can’t say for every book in the Fear Street Sagas series. This one gives me all the fun and costumes of the period without any questionable location choices.
Rereading My Childhood is written by me — Amy A. Cowan. For a list of every Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, and Fear Street book review I have written or subscribe to the Substack, go to http://RereadingMyChildhood.com. To listen to the official podcast, visit the website or search for “Rereading My Childhood” in your favorite podcast app. For more information about me, visit http://AmyACowan.com.