Feb 09

Hauntography: Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook

FT19 comments • 6,257 views

If you want to read it first, you can find it online here.
And if you want to know why I have written this, go here.

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


  1. 1
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 10 Feb 2009 #

    haha it’s probably an artefact of the size it appears in the post, but the demon is a LOT cuter in that picture than i have generally imagined it!

    (there is btw some critical suggestion that it is not a male demon — just to throw that in, heh)

  2. 2
    Pete on 10 Feb 2009 #

    Yes it looks like a billy goat in the picture (and a spooky shadow of a posh mans hand in the video). I tend to think of demons as being rather assexual, and this is a very male story. The only exception being the daughter who appears to get some sort of happy ending in her footnote.

  3. 3
    Andy M on 10 Feb 2009 #

    I don’t quite get the verger’s motivation in this. Is he trying to rid himself of a curse by passing on the book? He seems concerned about Dennistoun’s safety (“‘I shall have the honour of accompanying monsieur to his hotel?’…The offer was pressed three or four times”) but very keen to pass on the book as well.

  4. 4
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 10 Feb 2009 #

    he’s ridding himself and the church of the curse — but he is basically a decent man

    re the price: i think the curse is transferred via cupidity, so the sacristan (i prefer etc) must NOT ask too much

    i do actually think this is a flaw of the story though — is it canon alberic’s physical picture which is haunted? the exact rules and purpose (and indeed threat) of this demon are all a teeny bit muddled

  5. 5
    Tom on 10 Feb 2009 #

    There’s a sense that the demon is powerless to act directly against Christian things – it appears instantly when Dennistoun puts down the crucifix and then fails to kill him (if it’s trying to!) because he picks it up again. But it can certainly haunt and harry them – Alberic himself endures seven years of visitations by it, presumably protected to a degree by the church, and I wonder if his eventual death is actually suicide – removing whatever protection he had to end the matter quickly: he certainly knows it’s coming.

    But yes, it’s odd that burning the picture seems to lift the curse – though of course for all we know the demon goes on to haunt the library Dennistoun gives the book to.

  6. 6
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 10 Feb 2009 #

    real actual elements in this story: the church, the village and the crocodile!

  7. 7
    Pete on 10 Feb 2009 #

    But not knowing the precise terms of the curse, or the demon, increases the fear factor (tm BBC Doctor Who site). This is what a brought away most from the story is James very precise parcelling out of what he will tell you (in exhaustive depth) and that which can only be hinted at. This is why knowledge of Dennistioun’s relatively intact survival both removes a bit of the narratives power, but leaves a little bit of wiggle room for lingering doubt about the supernatural. We would know in the real world is people were being regualrly killed by pictures. But menaced, and then solving with their stiff up lip attitude, that is more likely.

    Of course there is another subtext that the French are too stupid / supertsitious to burn the picture. Or that burning it doesn’t really work.

  8. 8
    ledge on 10 Feb 2009 #

    This is I believe his first ghost story, and while it really does firmly set out the themes and methods he would continue to use, I think it’s one of his weaker ones. He often leaves unanswered questions but here it seems there are no answers at all – as you say, it’s all a bit muddled. What was the treasure Canon Alberic was seeking? What was the nature of his sinning? What exactly were the powers of the demon – it could obviously haunt very effectively but there is no evidence of it being able to inflict physical harm – the Canon lived for seven years before dying “in bed, of a sudden seizure”. (I do like your idea of the curse being transferred via cupidity though.) [this mostly in reply to comment 4]

    Also the climax, the fright itself, well they are often pretty brief in his stories but it does seem to be particularly lacking here. The description of the picture, “Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form…”, is excellent, but when it finally appears – well that is all that it does. Some of his later ghosts (no spoilers…) also only inflict psychological, not physical harm, but here I think we expect something more.

  9. 9
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 10 Feb 2009 #

    pete at 7: i think that’s correct in principle, but it’s something he delivers much better in later stories — the balance is a bit askew here

    also it’s less about what you don’t know, then when you try and add things up yourself, you get out-of-kilter answers: the sacristan says he’s seen the demon twice but felt it a thousand times… well, denistoun’s seen it once! so twice feels a bit mnagre; and what does “feel” mean? — feel as in denistoun’s sense there’s someone behind him, or feel in the sense of the two servant-men, pushed out of the way? if the former, well, even considering a thousand is a poetic number meaning many, the sacristan will have been in the church EVERY DAY, and a thousand days is less than three years

  10. 10
    ledge on 10 Feb 2009 #

    I’ve tried to track down the reference to Isaiah talking about ‘night monsters living in the ruins of Babylon’, this is the best I can do:

    Isa 13:21 But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.

    Isa 13:22 And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in [their] pleasant palaces: and her time [is] near to come

    And there is a suggestion that ‘beasts of the desert’ could be translated as night beasts, or creatures, or monsters, since desert creatures hide during the heat of the day.

  11. 11
    Tom on 10 Feb 2009 #

    He’s keen on satyrs though!

  12. 12
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 10 Feb 2009 #

    that’s the right verse, yes — but the exact translations of the hebrew monsters vary wildly, from screech owl to lamia (which means vampire-succubus, and is where the “femaleness” is — supposedly — hinted)

    i THINK i remember reading that one of those words only occurs once in the bible, and its exact meaning is simply up for grabs

    this is the kind of stuff james knew backwards — hebrew, greek, latin classical and medieval, old english and old french: his translations of significant sections of the apocrypha and the non-canonic gospels were the standard works for decades

  13. 13
    ledge on 10 Feb 2009 #

    A Hebrew/biblical bestiary sounds like it would be a fun read!

  14. 14
    Ned R. on 10 Feb 2009 #

    Oh man, I’m glad I noticed this. More later when not so wozzled in the brain but being the M. R. James freak I am having Pete look at these through fresh eyes makes me a happy man. I had never completely figured out it was the obsessive detail about these stories that is the key but you’re completely right!

  15. 15
    Tom on 10 Feb 2009 #

    Ned it’s a collaborative project – won’t be Pete every week! – so if you want to write about one of the stories feel free. I think I’ll be doing Lost Hearts, for instance.

  16. 16

    It’s not my favourite MRJ story, really — as I said above I think it’s a bit muddled, in ways that muffle its best effects (for another flow see below) — but I am enormously fond of it, for two reasons; one (like me) very old; and one I’ve only put my finger on while thinking about Pete’s post

    The first reason is that it’s the first MRJ story I read, or heard about, aged 12 or 13, I’d guess. My dad told me I’d love his stories, and summarised CASB, as his favourite, retelling the climactic “penwiper-rat-spider-aargh!” speech to get me juiced. To the rest of his family’s affectionate exasperation, Dad’s a lifelong and fairly serious arachnophobic, as (I believe) was MRJ: certainly it’s a revulsion that’s deployed twice in this story. I’m really not — though I was at that age a bit leery of daddy-long-legses, which will also feature further down the line, MRJ-wise. I enjoyed alot that I didn’t find this story scary when Dad did (a mild young-teen smugness that seriously caught up with me when I got a bit further through the big Collected Short Stories I got out of the grown-up library as a result of this conversation; there are other — lesser? — stories that kept me sleepless for weeks).

    The second reason concerns the story’s form, and an aspect of form that (as a cap-C Critic) I love love love: when form and function are in effect recursive. This is a tale of a man with a passion for books and reading; who is given a heart-stopping moment by a Scrapbook. The story ITSELF is in the form of a scrapbook — I’ll demonstrate in a moment — and its primary purpose is to give us, we the passionate readers, a good Gothic scare.

    So how’s the story a scrapbook, and why might they, nice cosy kids’ projects, be, well, unheimlich… ? Consider the scraps in Alberic’s own book: scraps of what? What’s their provenance — what stories link to them in their original place, and what’s the story of their arrival in the scrapbook? Recall the lovely phrase — on page two, so excellently compressed is this story — which MRJ deploys to signal the demon’s routine activities: “The strange noises that trouble a large empty building”; these scraps in MRJ’s own story are noises that trouble his tale; the colour and detail that make the story vivid and uncanny? the natural squeaks and creaks and whispers of a well-made long-standing structures, or “muffled footfalls and distant talking voices”, brain-menacing fragments of half-understood conversations somewhere off in the not-yet-unlocked rooms of the reader’s consciousness…

    Let’s list some of these scraps and what they’re (maybe) muttering (in reverse order cz it’s more exciting):

    Dennistoun, a Presbyterian, request Masses for the Dead
    A hint of much more than it sounds. Chantries, masses for the dead, were one of the principle earners for the pre-reformation Catholic church; Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries mainly for the ready cash, but the anathematisation of ceremonies, ritual and practices not mentioned in the Bible was central to the Protestant revolt (along with hostility to Justification by Works, and the concomitant practice of Indulgences). In the 17th century, Presbyterianism was (to super-simplify) the Scottish vanguard of this revolt — the Scottish mass refusal of Charles I’s new prayer book was in effect the first shot in the Civil War.

    The Isaiah quote (discussed above):
    The politics of translation was a significant factor in Christianity’s long and often bloody history — as just one example, not directly relevant to the location of this story, but not irrelevant either, Henry VIII began his reign persecuting those who argued for a bible in English, and ended it as a sponsor of same, along with his break from schism.

    Also known as Sirach, or The Wisdom of Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus is a Hebrew work from the second century BC, a compilation of apothegms on right living attributed by early Christians to Solomon himself (Ben Sira being merely the compiler). Though it’s accepted as Canon by Catholic and Orthodox, it’s placed in the Apocrypha by Protestants. So again there’s a sense of buried history and struggle, war over meaning and value as manifested in the quilting of stories into a book (and where they get quilted). There’s a discussion of the quote’s content and context here (also more on Isaiah), including details of what will assail the ungodly (“the teeth of beasts”).

    More here on Solomon and demons: inc this picture and also this one (but these woodcuts are 200 years old than the picture MRJ is describing,so non guide stylewise to what Dennistoun sees)

    A second-century Christian writer, whose “On the Words of our Lord” was (apparently) a work on the oral or social history of the early church, and how this confirmed or extended the history in the Gospels. As MRJ says, the work is now lost — possibly actively destroyed, for being “wrong thought” in some later era. The work is referenced and quoted (possibly inaccurately) by other writers of the period, in particular Irenaeus, another second-century Christian writer (iirc mentioned elsewhere by MRJ); the writer whose key tome “Against Heresy” helped establish the Four Gospels as Canon, and — in particular — shaped the church’s argument against Gnosticism. (“Patristic” refers to the patres, or Fathers of the Church — in other words, figures at the dawn of the establishment of Chrisitinary as a Church, such as Papias, Irenaeus, and of course the earliest Bishops and Popes. Uncial is the name of the script that early manuscripts were copied in, by monkish scribes — strictly speaking it was used right across Western Europe, from Ireland to Africa, but — given that its Irish variant, more properly known as Insular, was still in use in Ireland in the 19th century, and indeed survives today in the fonts used for Iirish Theme Pubs — it’s a least a buried reminder that, in the middle of the first millennium AD, a culture of Christian scholarship only survived, across all Europe, in Ireland…)

    The 13th-century English psalter:
    The Macclesfield Psalter is 14-century, but it gives some idea what Alberic and MRJ were excited about.

    The scrapbook and the Revolution:
    A Bishopric till the Revolution, the town probably had a library associated with the Chapter: but collectors from Toulouse would have ransacked that, if the upheaval of the Revolution had left anything to ransack. (The Bayeux Tapestry was very nearly used — and destroyed — as a handy tarpaulin duing the Revolutionary Wars; people had other things on their mind than artistic or religious or historical conservation…) By ripping them out of the Chapter library’s copies — stealing them for his personal use — Alberic inadvertently rescued them for history. This is a key paradox in this story; it summarises MRJ’s own teasingly ambiguous attitude to the values of his day, his profession, his class…

    Salad of all the Bernards:

    The town, then called Lugdunum Convenarum, was founded by Pompey, between military campaigns — who went to play a semi-major role in Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. According to the historian Josephus, Herod Antipas (with his wife Herodias) went to exile here, after the role HE played in the Crucifixion. Vandals sacked SBdC in 408; the Burgundians razed it in 585 and it was then deserted for half a milennium,

    In 1083, Bertrand de l’Isle-Jourdain, built the cathedral; he was canonised in the 13th century, hence the town’s present name. In the 14th century, the Gothic element was built by its then bishop BERTRAND THE GOTH (call him by his NAME), who went on became Pope Clement V, born c.1264 in Gascony, pope 1305-14, in which time he moved the Papacy to Avignon, extirpated the Templars (formerly the Papal bankers, by legend fabulously wealthly) and the Dolcinians (a radical heretical sect, politically and sexually), oversaw the near-last burnings of the Cathars, nearly signed an anti-Islam treaty with the MONGOLS. On his death, the church his body lay in was struck by lightning and his corpse burnt nearly to nothing.

    Dennistoun’s relationship with the Sacristan
    All the above provides a kind of texture of concrete detail which — the more you know about it read into it — effects a turbulent and disorientating contextualisation: history as a bloody series of convulsions; religion as bitter argument, controversy, crime; beautiful artefacts as the residue of terrible acts and times — pages in a book a means of occluding great sweeps of centuries, millennia, sometimes, when books were not the comfy easy things we handle so unthinkingly, but threats to order, or threatened by disorder. Dennistoun is learned, rational, sceptical, but also caught up in lust for historical discovery — he doesn’t behave wrongly or unkindly towards the sacristan (partly because MRJ himself clearly recognises Collecting as cousin, sometimes, to Robbery), but his attitude to him is amusedly patronising at best. At least till the demon appears.

    I think CASB establishes, with some vigour, MRJ’s own amused scepticism towards the justness of such attitudes, the self-possessed detachment of the modern intellectual in a world actually much more ghastly than such intellectuals often quite grasp, with their absolute (and naive) faith in photography and libraries and academic wisdom and objectivity: it’s a template for the kind of story he will make central to the canon of the ghost story, and — as a template — almost over-rich with detail, and (perhaps not surprisingly) devices he’s not yet quite mastered

  17. 17

    oos i forgot the “other flow” — ie flaw: this has ALWAYS bugged me

    i like that dennistoun is portrayed as talking to himself — viz when he offers himself another half-pipe smoke and accepts, that’s funny and good characterisation (this is a fellow who spends a lot of time on his own)

    but his talking to himself continues right through the realisation that the penwiper isn’t a penwiper at all — and i JUST DON’T BUY THIS; as he says himself, the realisaton is inexpressibly quick — ie therefore fast as thought not fast as talk! yes he need the reverie to blur into the shock, that’s good, and in written terms the pacing is correct, but the device throws you, because it’s silly (imagine it being portrayed on film, with dennistoun talking you through it all

    (also, though this actually is a much tinier gripe: penwiper! is this what jump into mind, in the “ordinary dark things on a table” category?)

  18. 18
    lonepilgrim on 7 Mar 2009 #

    there’s currently an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which features a delicate portrait drawing of M.R. James as well as several examples of the type of pages that so excite Dennistoun.
    Details here: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/whatson/exhibitions/cockerell/

  19. 19
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Mar 2009 #

    indeed there is: the macclesfield psalter — link above — is showing at it! but i didn’t know there was a picture of mrj in it!

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