The M.R. James Roundtable #1 - Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook
by Michael S. Collins and Friends
I make no secret of my love for the British supernatural short story. When done well, it is a sublime art form. (When done badly, it is hack work painted by numbers which sells to those who dabble in the grotesque, but we shan’t think too much on those here.) The thought of doing a round table discussion of one of these authors, with a few likewise minded writers, had crossed my mind many times since Winterwind reopened its doors. Sadly, for me, the chronological status of the A.M. Burrage archive is a bit up in the air, as are most attempts to get a hold of his writing without taking on the debt of Greece. Still, his copyright is up in 2027, so something for avid Winterwind fans to enjoy then, providing we all live that long!
The idea was too interesting to those approached, however, so I went to settle on a more available writer. And when it comes to ghost stories, the most available, and well regarded, is M.R. James. James was no ordinary horror writer – he was a renowned academic in Biblical texts, and the provost of Eton. His scholarly range (regarded contemporarily both as one of the finest in Britain and as one of the most deluded by critics given his interest in Apocrypha!) gave added weight – and Latin injokes – to his fiction.
So who better to read in chronological order than a chap with some of the best regarded tales in the language?
Joining me on this trek:
Jon Arnold, writer, long time Jamesian fan.
Tom Jordan, writer and horror fan, new comer to M.R. James.
Amy Van De Casteele, writer, horror fan, folklorist.
MJ Steel Collins, the better writer.
And yours truly.
We might have more fellow travellers in time. Who knows? Perhaps Monty, from beyond the grave.
Taking in this vast array of approaches from newly read to well read, academic to lay, I feel we can hopefully really get to grips with the tales in a new light.
And so we start at the beginning.
Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.
“As would become normal James goes out of his way to establish the settings as mundane - the church and sacristan's house are deliberately the sort of places that could be found in any town, hence the (eventual) occurrences could possibly happen 'next door' so to speak. Which I always find as the vital factor in how scary a ghost story may be (normality may be turned upside down). The sacristan is deliberately portrayed as a normal sort of chap. It's in the details that it's just that little bit deliciously off key for the potential reader of the time - the majority of said readership would probably never have been to France. Dennistoun is in familiar settings but unfamiliar territory so, in classic ghost story/horror fashion he's essentially alone with no friends in a strange place (untrodden corners of France as it's put). James might seem a tad cosy these days given the extremes to which modern horror/supernatural writers venture so it's quite a subtle thing that James' style hides. So James is pulling an opposite trick in the first paragraph, finding a way to make the familiar that little bit unsettling, but not unsettling enough that the effect of the supernatural later on will be lost.”
- Jon Arnold
“One of the earliest MR James tales I believe and probably the first I read at 14 when I found a bashed copy of Collected Ghost Stories in my school library (amazing they had the foresight to stock such a master!). When I first read it, I didn’t quite get what was happening, probably because I was slowly graduating up from R L Stine and Christopher Pike horror. I just thought it was strange.
Fast forward a few years later, I’ve read it a few times and there’s something quite enjoyable about it, though it’s not my favourite. It makes me wonder just how many antiquarians over the years have nearly come a cropper because of the rare manuscripts they pick up for a song in out of the way villages in mainland Europe. The Bodleian Library must surely be crawling with all sorts of beasties of the dark side.”
“Since James was an antiquarian, it is probably not surprising that this story revolves around a link between past and present and centres upon an artefact dating back more than a century – in this case, a scrapbook belonging to Canon Alberic, who was a minor church official living during the 17th century. Like several other famous 19th century supernatural works of fiction, the short story incorporates more than one narrative, as it is recounted by someone who is describing what was, in turn, recounted to them.”
- Amy Van De Casteele
The French back of beyond setting is the first thing which jumps off the page in this debut. Perhaps inspired by Guy de Maupassant (a well regarded tragic writer of French curio tales from the second half of the 19th Century), who was still alive when the story was written. St Bertrand-de-Commignes, where the story is set, does exist in real life. I have looked over it on Google Maps, if not visited. The writer Helen Grant, however, was been to visit the place in the flesh, and wrote at length about its similarities to the place James describes, even down to the stuffed crocodile which hangs on the wall. M.R. James certainly visited the place in the 1880s, and it stayed in his mind – and writings, as he was a ceaseless noter of things – until it became the basis of a setting. Conjuring these settings up is often easier when one has experienced them!
Our setting then is this quiet French culdesac village. Our dusty British academic, Dennistoun, is poking around the local church, and naturally his curiosity gets the better of him.
“He wanted to take photographs and jot down notes of the church and for this purpose “it was necessary to monopolize the verger of the church”. The verger is described as having a “hunted and oppressed” air, always looking about him and hunching his shoulders in a way that suggested he was constantly expecting “to find himself in the clutch of an enemy.” Dennistoun dismisses the man's behaviour as being the probable result of a bullying wife or a guilty conscience, but, this being an M.R. James story, we immediately guess it to be something more macabre.”
- Amy Van De Casteele
“James proceeds to gradually and subtly undermine this mundanity, firstly with the hints of metallic voices, then with the sacristan's nervy behaviour, then obviously with the other folk in the village whispering in corners of strange things. We know something's amiss but don't know what til Dennistoun opens the scrapbook.”
- Jon Arnold
- The hint of something existing in the chapel which shouldn’t be there comes in early, but our narrator ignores it, as one might ignore the sudden bark of a dog outside late at night. Helen Grant’s investigations of the church tell us that any sounds heard in the church must come from the church itself and not outside due to the acoustics involved. Now an academic chap, whose name I forget, went on the BBC a number of years ago and said that none of M.R. James ghostly victims deserve their fate. Yet in many of the stories, there is some fatal flaw that drives them on past the moment where most sane people would say “Nah, think I’ll leave well enough alone”. Curiosity is frequently punished, and given these were tales written by a most curious scholar, a psychoanalyst might well have a field day with them!
“I assume, of course, that the writer will have got his central idea before he undertakes the story at all. Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable.” M.R. James
Our man Dennistoun is tempted by promise of an old scrapbook.
“All very eerie, and foreboding darker things. Much darker, I hope, because in this modern age of slasher movies, fear and trepidation instead of gore is desirable and ratcheting up the tension is always a good thing.”
- Amy Van De Casteele
“The drawing which Dennistoun sees next continues to up the ante – it is a frightful image featuring a hideous form with “coarse, matted black hair”, “hideously taloned” hands and eyes which stared out “with a look of beast-like hate”. Not put off, Dennistoun buys the book and reluctantly accepts a silver chain and crucifix from the verger and his daughter.
That night in his hotel room he begins to feel uneasy. He removes the crucifix from his neck to clean it and lays it down – suddenly he notices something lying on the table beside his elbow. A hand. A hand with “pale dusky skin” and “coarse black hairs”. Ah finally – the dread creature has made its appearance I think, whenever I reach this part; the horrifying climax has been reached.”
- Amy Van De Casteele
Aha! The moment commonly referred to in writer circles as the “Jamesian Wallop” (credited to the fine chaps at A Podcast to the Curious), when the big supernatural element leaps out into the reality of the moment. James was infamous for them, and some of them work really well. This moment works when you are eighteen and reading it for the first time in the middle of a thunder storm on a cold November night. Having become rather more acclimatised both to the genre and to the writer, its effect is rather less.
“At this point we should note that those victimised by the supernatural in such stories need a type of sin. Dennistoun has laughed in church (a nod to sacrilege) but, more typically for James (and other horror writers) Dennistoun's big sin is a greed for knowledge (the contents of the scrapbook) when he'd perhaps be better off leaving well alone. But as we get from Dennjstoun's encounter with the creature it cannot be understood or reasoned with - we have no motivations, just images of it and it's 'hate' and 'desire to destroy all life', it being 'created for vengeance.' And like all good Victorian writers James finds safety in the symbol of the cross (if I was being pseudo-intellectual, I'd suggest it's essentially about safety in community, with the cross and Christianity being a big symbol of this at the time. Also, obviously faith being important - in that sense, and in warning of the danger of greed for knowledge James is quite conservative).”
“The reveal in the hotel room doesn't quite work with the creeping horror of what has come before. The big monster, whatever precisely it may be, is too much. It relieves the tension of the story by placing what had previously been only a perceptible but indescribable paranoia into a great big hairy thing with yellow eyes. It doesn't' feel like a reveal of a culmination, but a peek-a-boo. Maybe from my more modern perspective, and from a person who loves horror films and their like, that sort of thing just isn't scary for me, but if a ghost story is to be judged it it to be judged by how it scares me. In this aspect, it failed.”
- Jon Arnold
There are also other elements that I'm not sure were played up enough. Things that feel cliché now such as the humble foreign peasants and the crucifix as protection are there, like a hood ornament, but nothing really interesting is done with them. Even the ancient folio, though I do like that particular convention of scary fiction, isn't exactly a new and exciting variation of the trope. There are some moments of good writing that lift it above these conventions, but it isn't exactly clear when or how the story is being told. The habit of jumping time tracks within the telling of the narrative to reveal to the reader that in years to come how Dennistoun would relate the story spoil some of the tension of the story.
Presumably the implication is the demon creature, whatever it may be really, was in the church tower, and followed Dennistoun to the hotel. But then how did it get out? Why was it linked to the book when all it contained therein really was a picture of it? And if the sacristan was so haunted by the creature, why hadn't he got rid of the book before? The backstory feels rushed a tad, and it doesn't really feel as though James cared enough for it instead of getting to the main meat of the hotel room jumpscare. It's a shame and a problem that the history isn't as rightly sketched out as it could be, considering ghost stories are about, if nothing else, history's ramifications to the present.
"It put me very much in the mind of Stoker's Dracula, which was published three years after the original publication of this story. It shares much of the similar trappings and faults of both stories, though James at least doesn't have a deathly dull portion of the story devoted to the suitors of Dennistoun, which would be weird. But it shows how rigid the structure of horror can be when nothing new is really done with it, and I think that's my problem with it. It works fine. Sure, my issues with it listed above are issues, but it doesn't make it a bad story per se. It just doesn't make it one to particularly stand out either. It's a ghost story that exists, maybe give a little thrill in the description of picture of Solomon, but little else that will really linger under the bed after dark.”
- Tom Jordan
“Interesting in that the narrative is at one remove too - it's a friend of Dennistoun's recounting the story (so there's the possibility of it all being a big shaggy story!) and there's a certain maybe academic report feeling with the footnotes and final line about the 'book being in the Wentworth Collection'. It's perhaps a tad matter of fact in terms of presentation in that way, something I don't think modern writers would try as they try to stir emotions in the way James deliberately doesn't.”
- Jon Arnold
“I like how the verger is portrayed. Furtive is the word and you can tell he’s a man with a secret. Who knows just what the daughter has seen, but I bet she was glad to get away in the end! As for the beastie itself, Chewbacca’s half starved, distant cousin comes to mind. You can just see it lurking in the shadows behind whoever opens up the scrapbook. Though perhaps not making the Wookie noises. And quite possibly sharpening its claws."
- MJ Steel Collins
“It is indisputably a good tale, if lacking the satisfactorily gruesome and dramatic climax which modern readers might yearn for after reading books such as Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. It is elegantly told, self-contained and certainly doesn't fail to make the fine hairs on the back of your neck stand up. As one of James' earliest works it showcases his growing talent as a writer of supernatural fiction and is thus to be treasured. I enjoy it immensely every time I read it and wouldn't fail to recommend it as a good scary story to anyone who enjoys that kind of fiction. It has a restrained Gothic beauty about it which never fails to impress.... and also makes me a little reluctant to purchase any old scrapbooks or manuscripts, for fear of what I might find within...”
- Amy Van De Casteele
“Overall, pretty much a template for the sort of thing we'd get from James in the future. Not necessarily mould breaking in terms of what it does but highly effective.”
- Jon Arnold
I am particularly fond of how the Presbyterian Dennistoun has to pay for a Mass to be said for the soul of Canon Alberic, and then moans about the price! That never fails to raise a chuckle.
Alberic is a strange tale. Tom calls its “James-by-numbers” and in a way it is, though it invents most of the motifs he would later run with in his stories. It is one of the first of many in which the beast invoked has qualities that remind one of a spider, suggesting a latent phobia of the writer there, and one which many folk might sympathise with! We have our spirit who tempts with answers, and doesn’t lie, but doesn’t tell the whole truth. It’s like the chain smoking cop in the Clyde Brockman X-Files episode who worriedly asks the seer if he is going to die of cancer, and on being told not, sighs in relief, only to be bumped off by the serial killer within that very scene. So Canon Alberic, as noted in his scrapbook, asked the demon if he would get riches and die in his bed. The answer was yes, and the truth was yes, but the reality the Canon might have expected from this, and the reality of what is hinted to have actually happened are two entirely different things. When dealing with anyone you suspect might be a bit corrupt or dodgy, it is imperative to look at the fine print and exact wording of any clause. It is fitting that the same could be said of James’ demons.
So Canon Alberic? In flashes, great, and in others, underwhelming. However, all writers must start somewhere. We don’t know for sure where James apocrypha fits chronologically (and it amuses me that a fan of Biblical apocrypha would have his own outwith the established time line of his official works) so it is hard to say how many he had written and tossed away by the time Alberic was written and told to his friends at Hallowe’en in 1893. Perhaps John Humphreys and Speaker Lenthal’s Tomb, of which we have fragments, date from this time period too. But even as a young man, and it is strange to think of James as a young man, but he was my age when he wrote this, we see flashes of the genius that was to take over in later works.
But at this point, that’s all still to come.