I read a lot of so-called genre fiction, but I have never read many ghost stories. Even my brief dalliance with horror fiction tended to lurch towards scientific horrors rather than the supernatural. As a rationalist, I have little time for the spooky. And I expect to not be blown away, as a short ghost story has very little room to manoeuvre outside a straight up tale of the unexpected with or without twist. In our circles this is known as “there b’ain’t a signpost ‘ere for twenty year”. I am of the opinion that ghost stories don’t have a lot to throw at me that will shock, and thus scare me. That said, I like good cinematic ghost stories, The Orphanage last year was one of my favourite films. So perhaps I should just enjoy the sensation without holding on for the scare.
So this is my first proper M.R.James story. I approached Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook without a forensic eye, I wanted to be entertained and to see what a good short ghost story could do for me. So I racked up lots of spooky music (thanks Spotify for Spooky Tooth) and read. And quickly got the hang to what seemed to be M.R.James’s core trick: obsessive detail. James is marvellously specific with his times, place and reference. He manages in a few paragraphs to sum up this French village and this haunted verger (I prefer the term to sacristan). At the same time he starts to give the reader a bit too much information, a few too many options. The word ‘or’ is used excessively in the opening paragraph. Things are often described twice to different effect. The verger is either backed against a wall, or huddling under the pews. Deluded or guilty conscience or henpecked? All for atmosphere of course, our hero (lets call him Dennistoun – again a slippery non-specific technique around all this crystal clear description) needs to be seen to be rational and unfazed by what we can see miles off. Something is not quite right.
We are initially led to believe that the church will be the home of the horrors. It is described with creepy intensity, and has no end of creaks which seem to be putting the verger off. But again this is a red herring, as the real horror lays within the pages of a book. I have read some Lovecraft (and played some Call Of Cthulhu), and there is already a prefiguring of cthulhoid nonsense here. But first the scrapbook itself, and perhaps the story’s only gag is that the haunted book is described as a scrapbook. A seemingly harmless device, packed here with priceless ephemera, and a particularly nasty picture. And this is where our trust in James’s descriptive powers earned earlier in the story is paid off. Because he is essentially describing the indescribable, beyond the hair and the bogglly evil eyes of the creature in the picture, James can only describe an effect. The effect of dread, horror and fear cannot be gained just from the description. Instead the killer line makes it all real:
“One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from life’.”
From this point onwards its a breathless battle of the rational and the supernatural. The book is bought, Dennistoun takes it back to the inn and then is confronted by a spectre of the creature in the book. This second appearance is less effective than the first. Partially because its not unexpected but mainly because James has couched the whole affair after the effect, we know that Dennistoun survives to tell the tale, and return the book to Cambridge. So we know there is no death, no frightening to death and not even a Myskatonic style bout of madness. Instead James goes for a scholarly wrap up for his tale of apparitions, complete with handy plot rounding out footnotes.
So is it scary? Not really, though it does sum up a beautiful sense of place and time. Eerie is a better word, the scene the story sums up may only feel second hand to me because this is the setting for so many ghostly goings on in film. Old churches, graveyards, small villages, eccentric clergy and stubborn English academics. These probably all come from James, its why we’re reading him, and do him no favours. But it is interesting how he can be so specific about place and time, whilst also being so slippery. How the creature materialises to Dennistoun in the inn is possibly fluffed, does it come out of the book, is it built up from imagination? But that very vagueness is inherent in an apparition, and what impressed me the most is how James manages to sell the wispy hallucinations couched in his pinpoint descriptions. He is also not slow in picking out what we may already find frightning in a scenario like this small town. Poorly drawn religious pictures, which depict acts of great torture are all over churches, and have certainly made me feel uncomfortable in the past. Old Saint Sebastian and his spear, always a bit gung ho for my liking.
So that’s my first M.R.James, and I think I have a better handle on what to expect now. A Victorian version of The Ring, replace the VCR for a scrapbook and its almost identical. Nothing too surprising in the plot, on of the most interesting parts of this project will be discovering how many ways will there be to do ghosts? Perhaps what is more important is what the ghosts are and how they are sold to the reader. Here I think he overdoes it with the Latin and the footnotes, but again they serve to give a supernatural tale a sense of the academic, of the rational. All of which contrasts wonderfully with the title of the story. What was Canon Alberic doing with a scrapbook in the first place. And could anything in the story be any scarier than www.scrapbook.com.
Here’s a dramatic (perhaps overly so) reading of the last third of the story. Very fruity.
The next story we’ll be reading is Lost Hearts