Stories that inspired M.R. James

Twelve tales of terror recommended by the master of the genre!

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Episode 1 – Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook

September 21, 2011 | Episodes | Comments (28)

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges Interior PhotoIn Episode 1 your hosts Will Ross and Mike Taylor discuss M.R. James’s first published ghost story, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, in which crocodiles are purloined, religious pimping staffs brandished, sinister tomes examined and unholy terrors unleashed on an unsuspecting scholar in the darkest depths of rural France.

Also in this episode: Mike grumbles bitterly about carnival folk while Will insults Bury St. Edmonds before whipping out his Testament of Soloman and scrawling a cock and balls in the margin.

Show notes & links:


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  1. JulieH says:

    Liking the show so far! This is Julie from 19 Nocturne Boulevard, and Lost Hearts is my favorite MRJ story.

    Would love to hear what you guys think of my adaptation of it – several of my actors were actually from the area where Aswarby Hall used to stand.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks! I listened to your adaptation and really liked it, especially the spin you put on the story. And your actors were great – let us know if any want to get involved with a bit of reading for our podcast!


  2. yoyorobbo says:

    Awesome! I’m so happy I found your podcasts, fellas. These are excellent, informative, and hilarious. I love the side jokes and banter. Looking forward to future episodes and reviews. M.R. James is *the* master ghost story teller. Again, bravo!

  3. Tom says:

    Hi Will and Mike,
    I was delighted to stumble across this show. I’ve wondered for ages why there isn’t a MR James podcast, then yours appeared! Modelling the show on The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast is a great idea, and I settled into the format immediately.
    If you need a reader for the excerpts, I have a mic and mixer setup available.

  4. RobP says:

    Found your site following a link from the HP Podcraft forum, enjoyed your first episode, look forward to hearing the rest. Thanks!

  5. Becca says:

    Hurrah. I’m so glad someone is doing this. Was pointed at you from the hppodcraft forum. I adore M R James having discovered Lost Hearts at the age of about 13. Will start at the beginning and not skip to my favourites.

    Basically what the person above said but without the offer of being a reader. If only Michael Hordern were still alive….

  6. Priit says:

    cheers, just found that site last night. great work and really enjoyable listening! keep up the good work guys!

  7. GB Steve says:

    I found this page (in French) which shows another church with a crocodile and talks about the practice of having stuffed animals in churchers.

    • Joyce says:

      Just stumbled across another cathedral crocodile, this one in Seville. From the Wikipedia page on the Seville Cathedral: “The Door of the Lizard (Puerta del Lagarto) leads from the Court of the Oranges; it is named for the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling.”

  8. L J Cornford says:

    On the subject of audiobook readings, I’d recommend the set Argo did ready by the wonderful Michael Horden. To me these are the best. Horden had a wonderful voice, was great at the various characters and I love these versions.

    The Ago versions are currently out of print and were only release on tape (one was included on the BFI DVD of “A Warning To The Curious”, also now out of print), but they are findable. The David Collings version is also good, and still in print.

  9. Stant says:

    My goodness this is a nice podcast! I found this off of another podcast (the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast) and I am very happy to have done so. Please do keep up the good work!

  10. TheRubb1e says:

    Very nice podcast guys, really enjoy your Jamesian exegesis. Also the crocodile hanging from the ceiling…

  11. Richard B says:

    Fine work, chaps : great to hear such heartfelt enthusiasm for James, and what a brilliant way into the stories.

    I’ve wondered for a while now: is Denniston somewhat Scottish, do you think? I know the first paragraph has him down as an Englishman, but there’s his name (Dennistoun is a suburb of Glasgow, and ‘Denniston’ is not a million miles from Gordonstoun); the fact that he’s a Presbyterian; and, at the end of the story, James describes him talking ‘with a touch of the Northern British in his tone’: in the eighteenth- & nineteenth-century meaning of that phrase, a hint of Scots. The only other Scot in the stories (that I can recall, anyway) appears in ‘A School Story’ – McLeod, the small Highland boy with the second sight – and perhaps Denniston is meant to have a little of that, unconsciously, himself.

  12. A bit late to the starting gate, but I enjoyed this episode so I’m using it as an excuse to start re-reading James. As I haven’t read any for about.. ten years! (Woah, time slips and laughs and rallies!)

  13. Richard Leigh says:

    Strange that the sacristan’s daughter is said to react with fear when he says “he was laughing in the church” (She knows he’s not referring to Dennistoun), but later she is aid to know nothing of the reason for her father’s unease.
    Strange, also, how he states exactly how much he will take for the book: how does he arrive at the figure? Did he buy the book from someone else, long before? Has he been waiting, desperately, for someone to come along and offer to buy it from him, so that he can hand it on? Why has he never simply destroyed it?

  14. Richard Leigh says:

    A further thought – and here I stray into nerd territory. The composer Sorabji, famous for his almost unplayable keyboard music, was clearly a fan of MRJ. One of his pieces is called “Quaere reliqua huius materiei inter secretiora”, and another is “St. Bertrand de Comminges (he was laughing in the tower)” a slight misquote, but clearly his heart was in the right place.
    More utter nerdishness (nerditry?). In the BBC film of “A Warning to the Curious” there’s a brief passage from Varese’s flute piece “Density 21.5”. I’d known the work for years, but until seeing the film I’d never thought of it as ghostly. It fits perfctly, and that makes me wonder what other music might be suitable for future dramatisations of MRJ.

  15. mark says:

    Maybe the sacristan has more on his mind than you think. We are misled by all the evebts in the church into thinking this is where the trouble is nd will occour. However it’s possible that the poor man has two separate demons: one at work and one in the book at home.
    So maybe there’s an unfinished story about what goes on in the cathedral, after all the demon that appears to D doesn’t seem a laughing sort.

    • Richard Leigh says:

      I think this is a really good point. After all, we never meet a clergyman – only the verger, who is a caretaker. And the fact that he keeps the book at home suggests that it’s his property. A possible prelude could be that someone sold him the scrapbook as part of a collection – slipped it to him, like the Runes, without him knowing about the contents until it was too late. He hesitates to pass it on, even drawing Dennistoun’s attention to the deadly drawing. But seeing D’s enthusiasm, he offers the book at a bargain price (how much would 250 francs have been worth in those days, relative to a verger’s salary ?) to ensure that D buys it.

      • Daniel Eriksson says:

        I’ve only just discovered M.R. James (found a reprint E-book for a cheap buck a couple of weeks ago),and have thought, altough sacrilegious it might be, that someone should try writing a pre- or sequels to some of James’ stories. My skills in English are much too limited to be able to imitate James, but i’d like to see someone give it a try.

  16. Richard Leigh says:

    Yet another thought. The story ends with the words “….on the occasion of his first visit”. A hint here for a sequel?

  17. Joyce says:

    There’s a write-up on St. Bertrand de Comminges in “The Cathedrals of Southern France”:
    Including a drawing of the church and a mention of some paintings depicting the miracles of St. Bertrand, described as “of a certain crudity”. Sadly, the crocodile doesn’t get a shout-out…

  18. Graham says:

    The recent Christmas issue of the Monster Talk podcast featured a reading of ‘Pickmans Model’ and the reader Blake Smith speculated at the end that the story may have been Lovecrafts tribute to this M R James story.

  19. Michael Arnold says:

    Guys. I’ve been listening to your podcast pretty much since it started. I sometimes go back and listen again to old episodes – you guys have such good chemistry together! Keep going, this podcast is awesome!

  20. Jonathan says:

    Apart from this being the very first of Month’s tales, it was also the very first one of his ghost stories that I read. St. Bertrand de Comminges is very much as he describes it and there are many such places in France which had episcopal status until the Revolution.

    Excellent discussion by you two. As to why Dennistoun has to pay for purchasing the scrapbook off of the sacristan, is this merely akin to the same kind of tack used in Casting The Runes? There the slip of paper with the runes written on it must be directly passed back to Mr Carswell. Maybe said sacristan had to be paid for the book in order for all that it contains – including one friendly demon – to pass into the keeping of its new owner.

  21. Belinda says:

    Hi guys

    I came upon you by chance – the M R James stories as audiobooks are one of my Christmas traditions. I’ve already been through all the David Collings ones this year; Derek Jacobi waits in the wings in case I need a top up; I’ve also got the Librivox ones read by Peter Yearsley… Just a little excessive? You may be right. This is my favourite of the stories, although I can’t resist buying books (and don’t try very hard), and the idea of picking up a demon in a second hand bookshop is not appealing. I’m working my way through the podcasts as I do the Christmas prep work – currently up to Martin’s Close. Keep going, I’ll catch up presently!

  22. Laurence says:

    Killer episode right off the bat. Two thoughts I had:

    1. The section where Denistoun shows the image to his friend is almost definitely the model for one of Lovecraft’s very best stories, “Pickman’s Model”, right down to the revelation of horror being a picture done from life.

    2. Also Lovecraft-related: going on from you guys’ observations about the nature of a short story’s ability to contain inconsistencies and unanswered questions, particularly in relation to HP’s Cthulhu mythos, I always think Lovecraft reads weakest when the mythos stories are compiled too closely, as they often are. it’s a lot more terrifying when the vague cosmic gods and hints from the “dreadful Necronomicon” are left shady and unconnected and when they start to reveal any coherence it becomes less interesting. Which I think gels with what you guys are saying about the nature of the short story, and maybe something about the nature of fear in general.

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