In 1904, Montague Rhodes James published his first book of ghost stories, ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’. Remembered best now for those and later stories, M. R. James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. He wrote, among other things, ‘The Apocalypse in Art’, which created a phylogeny of illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse, and he translated the New Testament Apocrypha. In 1905, James 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.
For a man who spent his scholarly life looking backward, James wrote prescient horror stories. In ‘A School Story’, 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.”
James is at his creepiest at times 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.
Of course, the danger with leaving too much to the reader’s imagination is that readers bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter. Darryl Jones, who wrote the very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James’, 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 decides, “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”
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”, or, as Jones himself puts it, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.
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” (what else could that be, really, but a vagina?). 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.”
“…’Abbot Thomas’”, 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.”
Is every cave, odoriferous or not, a nightmare 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 even have been a homosexual; does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination a vagina? Is a dark, dank, smelly cave never just a cave?
Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James, with offending introduction by Darryl Jones.