It’s only been two short years since The Haunting of Hill House dropped on Netflix, a modern adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name. With this Mike Flanagan, best known as a Stephen King adaptation king, launched a new anthology horror series that is becoming known as “The Haunting.” While the first series was terrifying, laden with subtle dread and familial drama and the best jump scare I’ve seen in years, the second is a completely different animal that takes us to yet another haunted house for a new experience.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is one of the most beautiful, sad, and lovely series I’ve seen in a long time.
Based on the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” (do we italicize novellas?), the series follows au pair Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) as she is contracted to work at Bly Manor. Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) has inherited his brother’s children after the parents are killed in India. Miles (Benjamin Evan) and Flora (Amelia Bea Smith) are, as the young girl would say, “perfectly splendid.” They currently reside alone in the manor with housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), cook Owen Sharma (Rahul Kohli), and gardener Jaime (Amelia Eve). The five have formed a little family unit and exist in peace. Not everything is okay, though, as we see in Flora’s dollhouse. She keeps little dolls as avatars, keeping an eye on the people that live in Bly Manor and even those that seemingly don’t. Dani is brought in specifically to teach and watch the kids, intertwining her own life with this group.
Each time I return to Mike Flanagan I’m reminded of just how much he loves the stories he tells. His adaptations are his strongest work, and they’ve led to some wondrous things. This is, perhaps, one of the best he’s ever offered. Not wholly faithful to the brief, eerie story James told, but taking enough from it to weave a world of his own and ask us to just experience it.
Sadness is one of the most important elements to involving us in any ghost story beyond the idea that it can freak us out. Sure, visions of the afterlife and the tragic rage of those trapped within it can be frightening, but they can also be beautiful. Flanagan chose this path, telling a story that merely asked us to feel love and adoration for those that have suffered. No one character is without loss and no one character suffers alone. Each piece of the puzzle fall into places and when I finally let out an exhausted gasp, the final credits rolling, I was near tears with just how kindly and caringly each thing was presented. And while sadness is the key piece of this puzzle it can’t exist without love. Sheer, real, unblemished love that echoes throughout time and space to make things bright and dark and angry and sweet.
The series isn’t without its flaws. Some mysterious threads are left as such, no explanation offered and seemingly just forgotten. There are disjointed and slower moments in the worldbuilding that don’t seem thought out or dwelt upon. It’s irritating as you watch it, but the frame story makes it work for me despite my frustration with some bits in the middle.
The frame story is a certain aspect of the novella that I’m glad was explored further. In Henry James’s story it’s merely an introduction, with no follow-up and no real need to be there. Flanagan gives us an unnamed narrator in Carla Gugino, a recurring individual in many of his works, and her presence at both beginning and end serve to ground the issues and diffuse many of the narrative problems I had with the series. It feels hokey at first, but the narration creates a wonderfully traditional atmosphere of being told a spooky story by a fire (they’re literally telling a ghost story by the fire). It felt comparable to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein, Edward Scissorhands, or even something like Forrest Gump. This is the time of the year when I want that experience, to curl up by the fire and be told a ghost story.
This is definitely less scary than the show’s first season, but I found it much more rewarding at its finale. While there was a dark catharsis last time, I couldn’t help but feel charmed and elated at what we’ve been offered round. The Haunting of Bly Manor is flawed in spots, but the larger emotional ties bring it home in an impactful way. It’s worth your time and, I think, worth your love.