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The Dangers Waiting in a Scrapbook

From a 1904 edition
From a 1904 edition
Illustration: James McBryde

It’s amazing how successfully disturbing a very simple description can be when placed in the right context. M.R. James’ 1895 short story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” is a good example. The flavour of the first person narrative is amiable and a little stuffy, being the account of another scholar’s encounter with the supernatural following his perusal of a cathedral library.

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The first hint of genuine weirdness comes in a description of a strange painting of King Solomon on his throne, confronting a strange creature hunkered over a dead soldier:

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 the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: “It was drawn from the life.”

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The layer of narrative, the first person narrator over the scholar protagonist, Dennistoun, creates a dizzy height of uncertain impression. Dennistoun encounters a Sacristan who ends up selling him a fateful book—Dennistoun’s description of the man’s apparent anxiety reveals Dennistoun’s own hang-ups:

The Englishman hardly knew whether to put him down as a man haunted by a fixed delusion, or as one oppressed by a guilty conscience, or as an unbearably henpecked husband. The probabilities, when reckoned up, certainly pointed to the last idea; but, still, the impression conveyed was that of a more formidable persecutor even than a termagant wife.

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There’s a kind of cross hatch of impression that reveals something else, like a shape revealed after being stencilled by habitual psychological preoccupation. It helps create a sense of authenticity of the truly strange, too, when the phenomena are so clearly outside the limits of the viewer’s normal imagination.

There’s a nice recording of Michael Hodern reading the story on YouTube:

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Twitter Sonnet #1403

The rusty hands of metal kids were thin.
No looking leads the walking drop of rain.
A final wash revealed the stainless men.
In harvest totes we kept the weirdest grain.
The place for fire runs along the tree.
In broken clocks the second heart was beat.
Another seed has grown for plants to see.
And something pushed its way above the peat.
Informal books disturb the candy corn.
As nothing hands the mote of sweet about.
As nothing weakly cut was truly shorn.
The buggy map described a jitter route.
Advents in rock reflect a pebble sky.
With metal crust construct electric pie.

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