Monday, May 3, 2021

A Bit About "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book"

The Tower at the End of the World

Hand in hand.

Allusions to the work of British author M. R. James (1862-1936) figure into many of the books written by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland. I thought I would empty out the archive and mention some connections.

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is a short horror story written in 1894 and included in James’s first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). In the story, an English tourist named Dennistoun buys an unusual manuscript and finds, at the end of the book, two sheets of paper with drawings, the second of which is described as such:
The picture in question was a sepia drawing...representing, one would say at first sight, a Biblical scene; for the architecture...and the figures had that semi-classical flavour about them which the artists of two hundred years ago thought appropriate to illustrations of the Bible. On the right was a King on his throne, the throne elevated on twelve steps, a canopy overhead, soldiers on either side—evidently King Solomon. He was bending forward with outstretched sceptre, in attitude of command; his face expressed horror and disgust, yet there was in it also the mark of imperious command and confident power. The left half of the picture was the strangest, however. The interest plainly centred there. On the pavement before the throne were grouped four soldiers, surrounding a crouching figure which must be described in a moment. A fifth soldier lay dead on the pavement, his neck distorted, and his eyeballs starting from his head. The four surrounding guards were looking at the King. In their faces the sentiment of horror was intensified; they seemed, in fact, only restrained from flight by their implicit trust in their master. All this terror was plainly excited by the being that crouched in their midst. [...] 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. [...] One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: 'It was drawn from the life.'
In The Tower at the End of the World (2001), Lewis Barnavelt, his uncle Jonathan, his neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann, and friend Rose Rita Pottinger, take a summer holiday in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. While Jonathan has the mail forwarded from New Zebedee up to Porcupine Bay, Lewis is still surprised to one day get mail addressed to him. No one else knows he is there, of course. He opens the strange envelope to find a page torn from a book:
One side of the page was thickly printed with a Latin text in Gothic lettering. The other side was taken up by a steel engraving, a scene rendered in densely cross-hatched lines of ink. On the right, a king sat on an ornate throne, a stern expression on his bearded face. His outstretched hand held a scepter. On the left side of the picture stood four soldiers. Between them cowered a mysterious figure in a hood and cape. You couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman [27-8].
Upon careful examination, Lewis notices something quite horrible:
In the lower right corner of the illustration, the throne of King Solomon cast a deep black shadow. Only as he stared at it, Lewis realized it wasn't a shadow at all, but some kind of creature. It hunkered beside the throne, its spidery limbs hugging itself. Its body seemed to be covered with matted, shaggy black hair. Just visible at its left shoulder was its right hand, nearly skeletal. Like Solomon, it was pointing its finger toward the cowled figure as if in accusation. But worst of all were the eyes, round saucers that seemed to glow at the viewer with an inner hatred [28].
There are some further Jamesian flourishes found in Tower and I’ll point those out later.

No comments: