Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book
Published in 1894
I’m not sure how to classify this story, if it should be a demon story, ghost story, or something else entirely. M.R. James is known for stories such as this one-short, little horror pieces that are dense with the detail that his era of English literature was known for, leading up to a skin-crawling ending.
A great many of James’ characters find themselves at the receiving end of universal nastiness caused by their own pride and determination. James was fond of academic or religious characters-a great many face their downfall searching after a new discovery of one form or another. Dennistoun is no exception. Wandering through France he finds himself in the possession of what appears to be a particularly odd, rare manuscript. Depicting a creature staring down King Solomon he brings it back with him after purchasing it from a very nervous associate.
Dennistoun finds himself in a rather odd and frankly terrifying encounter later on that night. James’ work carries a lot of the same tension as Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey Paw’, but the themes are slightly shifted here-when Jacobs’ piece would be published close to eight years later the theme of being careful with one’s wishes would be much more developed. This is not to say that James’ piece is underdeveloped. If anything, with James’ piece the emphasis on cause and effect is greater-even before Dennistoun discovers the particular legend of the church his actions are causing a controversy: ‘A few remarks passed between father and daughter of which Dennistoun only caught these words, said by the sacristan: “He was laughing in the church,” words which were answered only by a look of terror from the girl.’
Further, Dennistoun seems to almost have stumbled upon this curse by accident whereas Jacobs’ piece is generally much more concerned with the direct impact of a conscious choice. While James doesn’t state as much the implication throughout the first half of the piece is that the monster, whatever it is, has been following Dennistoun as long as he was in the church. I’m not sure which is more troubling, bringing the monster to you out of pride and grief or doing nothing more sinful than laughing in a church.