“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” is a horror story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936). First published in The National ReviewRight-wing British magazine founded in 1883. in 1895, it was the first of his antiquarian ghost stories, and was included in his Ghost Stories of an AntiquaryCollection of eight short stories by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1904. (1904).
The story is set in early 1883, in a tiny decaying cathedral city at the foot of the Pyrenees in southern France, and is told as a third-person narrative.
An Englishman referred to as Dennistoun by the narrator is visiting St. Bertrand’s Church in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, where he plans to spend the day photographing and recording the building. After he checks in at the Chapeau Rouge, the innkeeper sends for the verger to allow Dennistoun access to the church.
The verger is a “little, dry, wizened old man”, with a furtive, hunted look about him. During Dennistoun’s day in the church he hears occasional odd noises, once what sounds like “a thin metallic voice laughing high up in the tower”. As dusk begins to fall, the noises seem to become more frequent and insistent, and the verger is visibly relieved when Dennistoun packs up his equipment and they leave the church. The verger, having observed Dennistoun’s interest in the old choir-books in the sacristyRoom in Christian churches for the storage of liturgical vestments, sacred vessels and parish records., asks if he is interested in old books, and if he is, he has something at home that might interest him.
The verger’s house is nearby, with the shield of Alberic de Mauléon, Canon of Comminges from 1680 to 1701, above the door.[a]Alberic is an invented character, but James adds an aura of authenticity to the story by describing him as a “collateral descendant” of a real 16th-century bishop of Comminges, Jean de Mauléon. The sitting room is dominated by a tall black crucifix, underneath which is an old chest. The verger opens the chest and removes a large book wrapped in white cloth, stamped with the arms of Canon Alberic in gold, which he offers to Dennistoun. The book contains about 150 pages torn from manuscripts plundered from the cathedral library by Canon Alberic, probably bound in the late 17th century. But the final page seems much later than the rest, and depicts the unnerving sight of a horrific demon crouching before King Solomon, surrounded by four terrified soldiers.
Dennistoun decides to buy the book, but the verger will only accept 250 francs for it, far less than its value. As he is leaving with the book, Dennistoun is approached by the verger’s daughter, offering him a silver crucifix and chain, which she begs him to accept as a gift.
Back at his hotel and alone in his bedroom, Dennistoun examines the book, and becomes aware of the presence in the room of a looming figure, just like the demon in the illustration. Two serving men respond to Dennistoun’s scream but see nothing, although they do feel something pushing them aside to escape as they enter the room.
Dennistoun photographs the drawing and then burns it on the day he leaves Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. The book is said now to be in the Wentworth Collection at Cambridge.
|a||Alberic is an invented character, but James adds an aura of authenticity to the story by describing him as a “collateral descendant” of a real 16th-century bishop of Comminges, Jean de Mauléon.|
- Full text of “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” at Project Gutenberg