A masterclass in suspense
Recently rereading one of my favourite M. R. James’s stories, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,’ I realised all over again what a master James is. The story is a lesson in suspense, but there is also so much to enjoy in the tone of the writing and the characterisation.
Dennistoun is a middle-aged don, rather fussy, sceptical, not all inclined to believe in the supernatural. He is exploring a church in the foothill of the Pyrenees and is at a loss to account for the behaviour of the sacristan who is showing him round – the fellow is unaccountably jumpy – not that Dennistoun tries very hard, engrossed as he is in photographing the architecture of the church. The afternoon wears on: ‘the short day was drawing in, and the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises – the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day – seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.’ Though I have read it many times, this still gives me a frisson. We see things from Dennistoun’s point of view and yet we see more than he does, and are well aware that something very unpleasant is coming. As the story unfolds Denniston continues to view sinister events in a rational light, but eventually even he starts to feel uneasy, until back in his room in the inn, ‘his attention was caught by an object lying in the red cloth just by his left elbow. Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted through his brain with their own incalculable quickness. A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black, A large spider? I trust to goodness not – no – ‘
I’ll stop right there, just in case you haven’t read it. I think it is one of the most perfect of the stories, but I also very much like ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ ‘Casting the Runes,’ and ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance.’ It’s one of the signs of a good writer that they are endlessly rereadable and M.R. James has that in spades.