Commonly rated among the top ten of James’ stories by his admirers, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” stands out as having many of the great tropes of what has come to be called a “Jamesian” tale: it follows a starchy English academic on an ill-fated holiday to a remote, backwards town (far from the Hobbit-esque comforts and required civility of Cambridge) where he is hopelessly drawn in by the allure of a sinister antique which brings with it a spectral guardian – eager to make his acquaintance.
Although the specifics are always interchangeable – the backwater region he travels to may be domestic (Suffolk, Essex, Devon, or Norfolk) or foreign (France, Germany, Sweden, or Denmark), the cursed antique may be a book, artwork, instrument, or crown, and the academic may be a conventional “Oxbridge” don, an amateur scholar, or simply a casually-curious tourist – but the message is always the same. James’ consistent thesis is that while civilization and science may have made the demons of humanity’s past seem less material, they are by no means less real: the obsessions and manias that drive men to despair and self-destruction.
The protagonist of “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” finds himself intoxicated by the allure of the eponymous collection which appears to have cost its author his life – and his salvation. As with most of James’ best stories, the parallels between the modern-day character and his long-dead counterpart continue to grow and swell until their face-to-face introduction becomes inevitable.
Our protagonist, Dennistoun, is the archetypal Jamesian protagonist (fitting as he is also his first): a fusty, comfortable, academic bachelor who is in France on holiday from his job as a lecturer at Cambridge. His destination is Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, a remote cathedral town near the Spanish border. He has set off from a group of friends who, not being quite as keen on cathedral architecture as he, have opted to spend the day and night in Toulouse. Bicycling off by himself, he arrives there early enough to devote an entire day to taking notes, photos, and sketches of the medieval marvel.
He learns that he must be accompanied by the local verger, who is obviously nervous and uneasy. Unsure of the reasons for his restlessness, Dennistoun first imagines that it must be a French thing, then wonders if he is keeping the fellow from lunch. He offers to let the old man take a break, but he forcefully insists on remaining with the Englishman.
As he makes his observations, Dennistoun is continually startled by odd sounds and whispers, most notably what sounds like a “thin metallic voice” coming from the top of the tower. The verger groans to himself that “it is he,” but quickly dismisses his own observation. Soon after, Dennistoun takes notice of a melodramatic painting of St. Bertrand rescuing a man “whom the devil long sought to strangle.”
Cynical and rationalistic, Dennistoun is amused by the depiction and turns to make a joke to his companion, but is shocked to see the old man on his knees, gazing at the painting with tears in his eyes. The sounds around them – which often resemble voices – seem to increase in volume and number as the sun declines, and the verger is noticeably relieved when Dennistoun calls it a day.
On their way out, the verger comments, awkwardly, on Dennistoun’s interest in some of the cathedral’s old books, which he acknowledges, asking if the verger knows of a library in town. While there is not, the verger offers to show the Englishman his own personal collection of literature related to the cathedral, and Dennistoun – instantly hoping that he might be able to cheat the fellow out of some priceless relics for a few shillings – eagerly agrees. He notices that the old man’s house is larger than its neighbors, and that it is marked with an antique coat of arms. Ever the scholar, Dennistoun recognizes them as the arms of Alberic de Mauleon, the Canon of Comminges during the late 17th century.
On entering, he is introduced to the verger’s daughter – a respectful, dutiful woman who seems equally nerve-wracked, notwithstanding – who appears to have been waiting anxiously for her father’s safe return. They quickly conference while Dennistoun is getting settled, and he overhears the old man whispering that “he was laughing in the church.”
The verger accompanies Dennistoun to the parlor where – under a massive crucifix – an old wooden chest sits prominently. Upon opening the box, he removes an immense leather-bound tome (ominously wrapped in a white shroud-like cloth with a red cross embroidered over it).
Dennistoun is intrigued: it is obviously late-17th century, marked with Canon Alberic’s arms, and appears to be a “scrapbook”: viz., a book made up of pages cut out from older ones.
In this case, the pages come from a variety of medieval manuscripts, many of them “illuminated” with fanciful illustrations and elaborate scripts, including ten pages from a Bible predating the Norman Conquest and the reign of Charlemagne. Another excerpt comes from a book thought to have been lost in the 12th century. They were, Dennistoun infers, stolen from the Cathedral’s records by Alberic himself – an act which has ironically preserved them.
Delighted – and conscious of the massive value of the contents – Dennistoun decides that he has seen enough and that he must have it, but the verger uneasily insists that he read on to the end. There, he finds a map of the cathedral – one clearly of 17th century vintage – which is strangely marked with a cross along with esoteric symbols of the zodiac, alchemy, and the Kabbalah.
It appears to be a kind of treasure map, and includes a date and a Latin dialog between two characters, one asking questions and the other answering them: “Answers of the 12th of December, 1694. It was asked: Shall I find it? Answer: Thou shalt. Shall I become rich? Thou wilt. Shall I live an object of envy? Thou wilt. Shall I die in my bed? Thou wilt.”
The final image seems to be taken from a 17th century book of biblical legends, because it depicts a non-canonical encounter between the Israelite King Solomon and a demon of some kind. The prince is sitting on his throne, watching a group of four soldiers who are backing away from a creature who is himself skulking over the crumpled body of a fifth soldier who has apparently died an agonizing death. The snarling thing between the soldiers and the king looks up at the monarch – who was said to have been granted mystical knowledge of demons by God – with searing hatred. It is not a conventional horned goat-man, however:
“At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair; presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate. Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’”
Dennistoun is not shaken by this mere illustration, but the verger has clasped his eyes in terror, and his daughter is desperately gazing at the crucifix. Writing them off as superstitious, uneducated papists, Dennistoun immediately offers to buy it. The verger insists on selling it for 250 francs (a couple months’ wages for a laborer) which stuns even the bargain-hunting Dennistoun since the ultimate price will be in the hundreds of thousands, but the verger is staunch on his price (suspiciously so), and as soon as the men shake on the deal, the verger seems to be a changed man – relaxed, relieved, and almost jolly.
His daughter, however, is still uneasy (she was, after all, not worried for herself, but for her father – and whoever might share his dangers). Before Dennistoun leaves she gifts him with a silver crucifix and makes sure that he wears it (though it chafes against his anti-Catholic prejudices). Seeing this, the verger retains a bit of his former seriousness, and insists on walking the Englishman to his room at the local inn. Dennistoun rebuffs their generosity (after all, he has already saved Cambridge many thousands of pounds and has gotten a silver necklace for his troubles), but the pair still protectively stand in the doorway, watching him as he walks to the inn, until he waves goodbye to them from the inn’s doorsteps.
While heading to his room, he mentions to the innkeeper that he bought an old book from the verger, and later overhears her speaking with what sounds to be the verger himself in serious voices. All he hears is that she assures him that two young men will be guarding the hotel that evening. Back in his room, Dennistoun lights a lamp and examines his purchase on a desk. He removes the crucifix – thinking it too heavy and dirty, and surely squirming at the thought of a Cambridge don being caught wearing such rubbish – and turns to look over the book.
Before he gets very far, however, his eye is caught by something hairy and loathsome resting on the table beside his hand. At first he thinks it is an ugly, yarn penwiper, then – as it is evidently alive – he wonders if it is some nasty rat or a hairy tarantula. No: it is a hairy, bony hand…
“In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled.
"He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror clutching at his heart. The shape, whose left hand rested on the table, was rising to a standing posture behind his seat, its right hand crooked above his scalp. There was black and tattered drapery about it; the coarse hair covered it as in the drawing. The lower jaw was thin—what can I call it?—shallow, like a beast's; teeth showed behind the black lips; there was no nose; the eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence of a kind in them—intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man.”
The loathsome ghoul – the same from the illustration – rears up behind him as if to envelope him in its arms. Dennistoun instinctively clutches the crucifix and screams. At that moment, the door crashes open, and the two young guards burst in to find Dennistoun unconscious in his chair. They revive him and the three sit up together all night.
In the morning the verger arrives and validates Dennistoun’s vision: he has only seen the creature twice in the flesh, but has heard or sensed it many thousands of times. Further exploring the last page of the scrapbook, Dennistoun finds another Latin paragraph where he learns that Alberic himself drew the illustration (which indeed depicts a “dispute of Solomon with a demon of the night”), and that it was – as is often conjectured by those who see it – drawn “from the life.”
Alberic confesses to having dabbled in the dark arts and to having been visited by this same demon several times (starting on December 12, 1694). But he is not proud: his hobby has resulted in unfathomable terror and suffering, and he suspects that he will soon see the Thing for the last time. Indeed, the text is dated December 29, 1701 – two days before Alberic would be found dead – in his bed – of a violent seizure on New Year’s Eve.
Unlike similar Jamesian protagonists (cf. Parkins, Paxton, Somerton, Humphreys), Dennistoun does not change much following his adventure. He dutifully conveys the scrapbook to Cambridge where it still can be seen. One omission is the final illustration, which has been destroyed, although a photograph was taken of it beforehand.
The narrator is unsure of what Dennistoun thinks about his story – which he enjoys telling – other than that he has a newfound appreciation for Ecclesiasticus’ references to “[furious] spirits … created for vengeance” and Isaiah’s allusions to “night monsters living in … ruins.” One notable development, however, is that the narrator recently traveled with Dennistoun to Comminges where the two men visited Canon Alberic’s marble tomb. The narrator is surprised and touched when frugal, anti-Catholic Dennistoun sheepishly slips away to speak with the vicar, whom he pays a significant amount to say a Mass for Alberic’s soul…
M. R. James’ very first ghost story introduced his primary, recurring motif: the dangers of gazing too fervently into the navel of the past, without expecting a response from within. His first protagonist – a very lucky and unshakeable one – was clearly meant to be a self-parody when he read it for the first time at the Chit-Chat Society in October of 1893 (a ghost story for Hallowe’en rather than Christmas, apparently): James himself had visited St. Betrand de Comminges earlier the previous spring, had done so – as Dennistoun does – alone, by bicycle, while his two companions (Cambridge men J. Armitage Robinson and Arthur Shipley) explored Toulouse.
Very quickly, James establishes his universe of horror as one which is deeply personal – and frightening – to him. It is, of course, also lathered in James’ dry sense of humor – filled with jokes at the expense of the French peasantry, Scotch Presbyterianism, and his own habit of audible self-talk – and even ends on a humorous note, but the overall tone is unquestionably dark and notably personal. James often seemed to use writing as a means of exorcising his own private concerns about loneliness, obsession, vulnerability, and the inner demons of a man who so desperately tries to convince himself that these were the long-dead problems of other men in other centuries.
Greed, selfishness, ambition, misanthropy, and intellectual arrogance constantly lurk in the hearts of his fusty protagonists – from Professor Parkins’ vain hubris and antisociality, to Mr. Wraxall’s tactless, abstract admiration of a mass murderer, and from Mr. Humphreys’ impulsive ambition to follow his ancestor’s footsteps, to poor Paxton’s unforgiveable curiosity and greed. It is notable that each of these protagonists find themselves mirrored somehow by the bogey they encounter – a spectre that is drawn closer to them by the mortal’s increasing awareness and attention.
From a structuralist interpretation, this is simply good story mechanics – as Dennistoun, for instance, grows more curious about the verger’s scrapbook, he also draws nearer to the danger it represents – but it is also richly symbolic of the protagonist’s internal condition. Dennistoun lives in a time where the vices that lead to Alberic’s damnation (and could have lead to his execution for sorcery) are easy to cover up as quirks of an eccentric academic: he is cold, proud, greedy, isolated, curious, and silently ambitious for scholarly glory and recognition.
In another century he may have been an alchemist, but in this one he is merely Old Dennistoun – cheap, intractable, and eccentric. But James warns his readers – as well as himself – that these traits are no less dangerous to the heart of modern man than they were to the unfortunate Alberic, for whose soul Dennistoun is uncharacteristically driven to pray.