Reading Group #9 ('Canon Alberic's Scrapbook')

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Reading Group #9 ('Canon Alberic's Scrapbook')

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juny 17, 2011, 4:16am

It's about time we got around to some M. R. James. I have my play all this weekend, but will have this read by Monday at the latest. I've read it many, many times, and I always enjoy it (like nearly everything else of his)...

Editat: juny 17, 2011, 8:42am

This is another that suffers from some flakey online editing (or lack of ...) - I got well into my first reading under the impression it was set in 'the spring of 883".

Holy anachronism, Batman!

1883 is what James actually wrote, of course.

I'm getting the idea, with these short stories, that Project Gutenberg has the most reliable texts, but I don't like the font they use. Anyone have any thoughts on this? Second thoughts - I'll put this bit in the 'gossip' thread.

ETA - I've just realised that comment on Project Gutenberg was a daft one. I can copy the stuff over to my own files and change the font to my liking, can't I? Prat.

juny 17, 2011, 11:27am

Haha, that was exactly what I was going to say!

juny 26, 2011, 3:13pm

Is anyone else reading this? I have some thoughts - for what they're worth - but I don't want to post any spoilers and it's a bit difficult not to with this one.

juny 26, 2011, 3:20pm

I read it! Hit me with your thoughts!

juny 26, 2011, 5:12pm

I've read it too, but still mulling it over in my brain. Please spoil away!

Editat: juny 26, 2011, 5:34pm

Well - I haven't got a lot out of it.

I found it rather low on the 'creep' factor. Even when the one with the hair made an appearance I didn't find it particularly strong.

What interest there was for me was in trying to 'read between the lines', as it were, to work out the exact inter-relations between Alberic, the one with the hair, the scrapbook, the sacristan and the church, assuming they were there below the surface; but they didn't seem to make much sense. For instance, if the trouble was tied to the book and its ownership, why was the sacristan afraid to leave Dennistoun alone in the church?

juny 26, 2011, 6:01pm

It's James' first ghost story, and it has its weaknesses. I think there are some holes in the narrative, which you brought up, rank. We should read something creepier like 'Rats' or 'The Mezzotint' or 'Casting the Runes' sometime, too, but this is a good place to start. I think, since all of James' stories follow the same general pattern (scholar/antiquarian/man-of-leaisure discovers book/relic/circumstance that lets loose some ancient, hairy/toothy/lumpy evil), that the strong stories are VERY strong and the weak stories are just...bleh. Not too memorable. Not bad, precisely, but not thrillingly entertaining. That said I do quite like this one...

juny 26, 2011, 8:49pm

His first, eh - not quite into his stride, yet. I know I've read and been impressed by some of his stories in the past.

One thing I thought I detected here was a certain confusion of tone - just a touch of 'English gentleman dealing with the funny foreigners', humorous style at odds with content and genre.

juny 27, 2011, 12:10am

Rank, I'm glad you said it first. I wasn't too enthralled by it either. But I was not aware it was his first story, so that would explain a bit. Since I have not read any other of James's stories, I wonder if I read some of his best work, how I would see Alberic on a re-read.

I do like James's typical tropes, so I am looking forward to reading more of him.

juny 27, 2011, 1:42am

Do you have the Folio edition, Sal??

juny 27, 2011, 6:49am

I do not. I have the two volume penguin classic edition, edited by S T Joshi.

juny 27, 2011, 6:23pm

Oh, well if you can track down the Folio, it's one of the best purchases I've made this year. The illustrations are phenomenal, which sometimes just isn't the case with, er, 'genre' stuff...

juny 27, 2011, 8:40pm

Yea, I would love to grab the FS edition, just waiting for a reprint or a good price on eBay.

juny 27, 2011, 10:03pm

One thing that has always puzzled me about that story is why Dennistoun doesn't seem to be as plagued by the creature as the sacristan was. Clearly the creature went with the book, but the tone of the story after D.'s departure from St. B-de-C makes it seem as though the creature were left behind.

juny 28, 2011, 9:02am

Presumably the creature was somehow tied to the illustration Dennistoun burned. To me, the story doesn't satisfyingly 'add up' - if you see what I mean.

The thing about Solomon was that he was supposed to have controlled demons to work for his ends. James wrote a piece about it, online here -

Presumably this was what Alberic was up to and came a cropper because of it. But the story doesn't seem to satisfactorily tie it all together - to me, at any rate.

juny 28, 2011, 9:26am

More on that doesn't tie together thing:

I think a lot can often be added to the creepiness of such a story by leaving things unsaid and loose-ends untied. I think what James does here is to unbalance the story by overdoing that.

That said, I've been half-hoping one of you would come back at me with, "You're missing half of it - this happens because of that, and that because of the other"!

juny 28, 2011, 10:14am

>16 alaudacorax:

Yes, that thing about the picture-bond occurred to me after I'd gone to bed last night. I also wondered whether the demon was the party with whom Canon A. had made his bargain, or whether he'd made it in the usual manner with the demon being only the instrumentality. The G&S piece would seem to make it the former.

That and the picture-bond are interesting insofar as why the demon would still be plaguing anyone two centuries later. Perhaps the sacristan is supposed to be a descendant of Canon A., given that he's living in his house and in possession of what might well be "heirlooms" (both book and demon)? Although it is curious that the demon seems to haunt whoever holds 'title' to the book (suggested by the selling rather than simple giving-away of the book). That also makes me wonder what the treasure was that Canon A. looted: the library, or more typical gold & silver locked up in the treasury (apparently St. B-de-C had a hidden treasury: Wikipedia has entries on the person, cathedral, and town, and there's an interesting "G&S" article about the cathedral and town that's available on-line). And after all it's curious that the sacristan didn't just burn it himself.

Even so, I find this story satisfying enough, certainly more so than "Two Doctors".
I rather like the incompleteness because it makes it seem all the more plausible, especially considering the accuracy of the place-descriptions.

In a way "C. A.'s S-B." reminds me of "The Treasure of Abbott Thomas", which I suppose shouldn't be too surprising given the similarities between "The Mezzotint" and "The Haunted Dolls' House", and between "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "A Warning to the Curious". And, now that I think about it, there are some similarities with "An Episode of Cathedral History", too.

juny 28, 2011, 6:36pm

I agree with drbubbles that the more fragmentary, incomplete style of the story adds to its plausibility. And it's certainly more Gothic for it. That said, James also has a tendency to end his stories on rather, for lack of a better word, dry notes; after the climax or the horror is fully relevant, dealt with, etc, he often goes in for a sort of blase wind down that includes either needless exposition or, paradoxically, a veiling or explaining-away of the story as something his narrator (almost all of his stories are told in the first-person, though sometimes many times removed) heard but doesn't put much faith in, which is sort of...anti-climactic.

But of course I'm a big fan, and these low points don't take away very much of the stories' power for me. It is a pity, though, that they happen, usually, at the last bit of the story, as that's what I consider the most important part. I'm a sucker for a great last sentence (or two).

Editat: juny 29, 2011, 7:58am

Last night, I read the second story* in the book and found it quite satisfying. Though with no great depth to it, I found it quite well-shaped and, though not very high on the 'creepy' factor, it had a certain amount of building menace. I thought it simpler but more polished. Or, perhaps, not 'simpler' so much as tied together more neatly. I'm probably going to get a decent edition of his stories at some point and, in the light of veil's comment in #8, it will be quite interesting to look at the chronological order of the stories.

ETA - Sorry, *Lost Hearts.

juny 29, 2011, 2:38pm

"I'm probably going to get a decent edition of his stories at some point"

This made me think of how I enjoy reading gothic stories (especially antiquarian spook stories) in old books smelling of dust, with page browning, some spotting, and maybe even some brittleness. A gothic story from a gothic book, as it were, providing another connection to the atmosphere of the work. I've found a lot of Dover editions over the years, and while they're all pbk, a lot of them are basically reproductions of older hbks so one gets the older typefaces (and often Dover uses thicker paper, too). Then there's the ghost-story novel I received as a gift some years ago, with paper texture, page layout, and typeface that all remind me of tedious academic works: so I haven't even tried to read it yet.

Does this kind of thing happen to anyone else?

Editat: jul. 1, 2011, 6:30am

#21 - Everything you say chimes with me. I think you've just summed-up one of the attractions of second-hand bookshops. There are none left around here, now, but your words perfectly conjured up the atmosphere of a couple I used to know. And that combination of being visibly aged but still in good enough condition to buy goes perfectly with the Gothic.

ETA - Come to think of it - though I can't think of one off-hand - there must be any number of spooky stories based on someone finding a rare old book in a second-hand bookshop.

ETA to my ETA - "... though I can't think of one off-hand ..." - (slapping forehead) completely forgot the subject of the thread, didn't I?

jul. 1, 2011, 6:54am

#20 - I read the The Mezzotint - the third in the book - last night and found that even better.

This prompts a question: would I have found Canon Alberic's Scrapbook a stronger story had I not been reading it extra carefully and critically with a view to writing it up in this thread? I really don't know the answer to this, but, in future, I'll make a conscious effort to turn off the 'Gothic group' bit of my brain for the first reading.

jul. 5, 2011, 9:17am

Happy post Independence Day to my fellow Americans, and hello everyone! If everyone's mostly ready to move on, I'd like to. Next up I think we should give Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper' a go. If no one's hip to that, Blackwood's 'The Empty House' or Poe's 'The Masque of the Red Death' are both on my brain this week. Decisions?

jul. 5, 2011, 11:25am

One last post before I comment on #24:

I actually attempted this post in the early hours this morning, but it wouldn't behave itself so I never posted it - let's see if I can beat it into submission this time:

I've taken to thinking of the kind of stories we've been dealing with as lying on a line. One extreme of the line being the pure 'chiller': here it's the author's writing skills ratcheting-up the tension and 'chill factor' that is the main strength of the story - I actually had in mind as an example 'The Empty House' that v. mentions above. The other end of the line I see as the 'curiosity' (in the sense you'd use it of some odd conversation piece you found in some junk or antique shop): here, the main strength is (are?) the fantastical elements in the story - the example I thought of here was H. G. Wells's 'The Crystal Egg' - a story with a fantastical premise but pretty much devoid of tension and chill (as I remember it, anyway).

My idea for a really top-notch story would be one that straddles the whole line - imaginative and inventive and tension-making and creepy.

I'd put 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook' as covering a length round the middle of the line, reaching slightly further on the 'curiosity' side than the other. There's an interesting bit of curiosity value in the references to Solomon's demon-doings in the Apocrypha or wherever, and in the unanswered questions the story throws up; a bit less on the tension and creep side.

It occurred to me that James could have made a much better story from the sacristan's point of view.

Anyway: Too simplistic? Am I overlooking important stuff?

Editat: jul. 5, 2011, 11:45am

#24 - I'll vote for Charlotte P. G. I've read the other two within the last couple of weeks (I've got Blackwood and Poe anthologies in my 'Long-term reading' pile) and I'm - of course - quite happy to have a go at them. With the CPG, however, I haven't read it for years and can barely remember it, but I have an idea of it being more in the 'psychological' vein - akin to the Oliver Onions - and I'd like to give it a go as being something a bit different.

Edited to strike-through the 'the' - because the Oliver Onions I was so impressed with wasn't one of our reads - and if it had been the CPG wouldn't be something different, would it? (Shuffles off shaking head and muttering to himself.)

jul. 5, 2011, 12:28pm

I've never read Charlotte Gilman, so I'd put my vote in for her.

jul. 6, 2011, 2:01am

Gilman it is, then, friends.

Rank, as to your post in 25:

I think I agree with you completely. I think Lovecracft straddles that line well, as well as writers like Blackwood (that's why 'The Listener' is still my favorite of all time).

New thread is up.

jul. 25, 2011, 6:24am

This is prompted by my post here -

It seems I've sort of subconsciously changed my mind on this one and now find myself having to describe it as a favourite.

First of all, it's stuck in my mind more than most we've read; which suggests it has strengths I didn't consciously register. In addition to that, as I re-read this thread, I'm struck that I carried on reading through the succeeding stories in the book (and this was online and I don't really like reading stories online); which must say something for Canon Alberic. And then I notice that I'd formed the intention of buying a collected M. R. James by #20! Actually, it was probably only that intention that stopped me reading more of the stories on Gutenburg. And all this is on a story I'd thought I was a bit tepid about.

Trying to reason all this out, I have to admit that I can't really make much sense of it at the moment. It's too easy a cop-out to say that there must be something about James's writing style that chimes with me, so I'll have to give some serious thought to the matter.

#11, #13 - veil, to which Folio edition were you referring? I'm a bit torn at the moment - there's a '73 edition illustrated by Charles Keeping, with some quite cheap copies online at the moment (except the one they want £250 for!), and a 2007 illustrated by Francis Mosely which is rather scarcer and more expensive. And then there's a surprisingly cheap OUP hardback coming out in October which will include lots of notes and other goodies. Did I say 'torn'?

Editat: jul. 25, 2011, 6:38am

That Francis Mosley edition is the one I have. I had to sit on it a while before finding one that was cheaper than $100 US, but I finally won an eBay auction and picked up a gorgeous copy for around $60. Believe me, it's well worth it. Plus it contains every story he wrote (give or take one or two that are real clunkers anyway). I'll take some photos of the illustrations tomorrow and send you a few, if you'd like.

I also have an Oxford paperback that contains a great introduction and fabulous, fabulous notes and a few mini-essays of James' on the subject of ghost stories. It's called Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories. It set me back a piddling $7. Well, well worth it. It's now dog-eared. :)

Editat: jul. 25, 2011, 8:04am

#30 - I was afraid that was the one you were talking about - from what I could find of their work online I thought Mosley's much the most attractive.

I imagine this new OUP must be based on your paperback - it has what they describe as a 'lively' introduction, presumably by Darryl Jones, who's the editor, the essays you mention, also 'three uncollected tales'.*

ETA - *Nope, different editor and introduction.

ag. 28, 2012, 5:18pm

Time, I think, to take up the invitation to comment on older threads, as I've just reread this story in the Collected Ghost Stories edited by Darryl Jones.

Sad to admit, but I hadn't spotted the plot holes others commented on above. It's a bit like Ringu (Ring), isn't it, with the sacristan evidently having to pass on the cursed scrapbook (foreshadowing "Casting the Runes"?). I presume his back-story is the same as that of several later Jamesian protagonists: treasure-hunters or the intellectually curious coming a cropper when they bump up against the supernatural. Whatever he did must have meant that simply burning the picture would not have sufficed (unless this is a move that simply wouldn't have occurred to a stock "funny foreigner"? Because, yes, there is a bit of that in this story. As noted above, it was James's first ghost story.

I have a lingering mental idea, still, of "Gothic" as meaning very long novels or serials involving female protagonists imperilled and imprisoned, forced marriages or immuring in nunneries, wicked guardians and stolen fortunes, all that business (by no means wholly untrue of course and surprisingly long-lived, especially for a female readership. In fact, this sort of thing was a staple of British girl's comics (or "story papers") right up until the 80's or early 90s).

However M R James's stories don't work like that (even when, as in "Lost Hearts" the subject is an orphan at the mercy of a wicked guardian - maybe that's why he wasn't keen on it: too hackneyed? Or he was unable to pile on the agony like Le Fanu or Mrs Radcliffe would have done?).

No, rather these stories have a detached, academic air, they are short (designed to be read, or even acted out, aloud) and as a rule built up slowly to a crescendo - like a piece of music, maybe?

I said dry and academic, but that could be because I'm reading them wrongly. Has anyone else seen Robert Lloyd Parry performing M R James (including this story), either live or on DVD? In a period costume and with the glasses, and hair brilliantined back, he bears more than a passing resemblance to James. He reads in - not a fruity "actor" voice or his own speaking voice (there's an interview he did online) but a rather light, fussy, Oxbridge voice. It doesn't initially seem likely to chill, but in character (of the protagonist) he's excellent at bringing out the terror.

On a related note, has anyone else bought (or seen) the volume edited (rather heavily) by Stephan Jones, "Curious Warnings: the Great Ghost Stories of M R James"?

Editat: oct. 17, 2018, 1:13pm

Lobbing this back into the limelight so as not to overlook it. Viewing the YouTube clip with only a few minutes of the MRJ one-man show (Parry) was enough to place this next on the list.

Wanting to keep track of the order thus far;

The Mezzotint
Casting the Runes
The Ash Tree
The Haunted Dolls' House
Canon Alberic's Scrapbook

The witch-hunt concept seems very similar in my mind to other themes I've noticed recently. Might be time to dust off The Crucible.

ETA: An email arrived yesterday that Stratford Festival (Ontario) has included The Crucible in their 2019 program of plays. Very timely. Others include; Othello, Henry VIII, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Private Lives, The Front Page, Mother's Daughter, Nathan The Wise, Birds of a Kind, Little Shop of Horrors, The Neverending Story, Billy Elliot.

Editat: set. 29, 2018, 3:23pm

>22 alaudacorax: The first knee-jerk reaction to that concept was vivid memories of Bedknobs & Broomsticks.

set. 30, 2018, 8:33am

I loved this story from nose to toes, more than I can say. It was marvelous. Don't care about the perceived plot holes, don't care about the haughty speech patterns, don't care about the obscure references ... only care that the writer was able to place me smack in the middle of the action, to the point where I actually brushed my neck and shoulders, sensing something might be creeping up behind me or brushing past me. I adore that kind of sensory overload! Bristled, blinking, brash reactions to the words and the voice of the narrator on the audiobook, Michael Hordern. Now on to The Rose Garden =D