The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

By M.R. James

I’m sorry to tell you, but the title of this post is misleading: I am not going to talk about ‘The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ today. Instead, I’m going to talk about the introduction to the 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition of the ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’, written by one Darryl Jones.

M.R. James

Remembered best as a horror writer, Montague Rhodes James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. Accordingly, he was a master of what is sometimes called “antiquarian horror”, namely horror that centers around items or students of antiquity (think cursed artifacts, ancient manuscripts with terrible secrets, stuff like that).  Importantly, he seems to have led a largely hermetic and unisex existence: in 1905, he became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Despite being backwards-looking, the creepiness of James’ stories holds up beautifully, and it’s difficult to overstate the influence he has had on the genre. Take, as one example, ‘A School Story’, in which two men compare the ghost stories of their school days.  Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

Like Lovecraft (writing around the same time), James is at his creepiest at moments like this, when he leaves things unsaid.  The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself. James is very deft in this space, in the gesturing to horror, in inviting the reader to participate in designing the frightening thing.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to your readers’ imagination is that some readers will bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter.  Enter Darryl Jones, Professor of Modern British Literature and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, who wrote the (otherwise) very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’.

My complaint with Jones is a small, but important, one. At one point in his (really very good and helpful) introduction, Jones spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones then calmly makes the following statement: “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, Darryl? Is it really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’).  It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’.  Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place.  In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”.  He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” This story, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Jones’ argument, namely that James’ cloistered and all-male life might have indicated a fear of female company, is not unreasonable on its face. Nor is it unreasonable to ask whether that fear may have found its way into James’ writing as, to quote Jones, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

However, I’m not persuaded by the examples Jones gives. I’ll put it more plainly: it’s not obvious to me that every menacing crevice must necessarily be a vagina.

James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”.  He may have been a homosexual, but does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination…a vagina? 

I don’t want to make this all about me, but, as a person with a vagina, it’s difficult not to take this a tiny bit personally. I would certainly have hoped that nothing on my body could be described as eliciting “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”. The trouble is that Jones seems to assume that every dank environment, every toothed oriface, every bad smell, must be a vagina. Worse, that he assumes it’s obvious. Reading his introduction, one starts to wonder whether, for a certain class of man, all monsters are really just vaginas. Some of Jones’ examples are real stretches, too – I don’t want to speak for other women, but I’ve never heard of a vagina with tentacles.

It’s a minor complaint, in the grand scheme of things, but I would like make this small point: the world is a large place, full of terrible things, and not all of them have to be vaginas. We can imagine other monsters, can we not? Sometimes, a cave is just a cave.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.