An Episode of Cathedral History by M.R. James


“…I almost think the effect’s better when it’s all dark-like. Seems to add to the size and heighth.”

I think I shall now have a break from real-time reviewing MRJ stories solidly for the past week or two, especially having now read, possibly for the first time, this the most frightening one of all, well, in today’s passion of the reading-moment, that’s what it seems to have done to me. Thanks, yes, thanks and not blame (!), to the M.R James Appreciation Society on Facebook for effectively recommending it to me. 

From the Datchery and Durdles of Drood to the “don’t want to be dawdling about all night” in this tale — a tale created by the narrator’s piecemeal piecing together by gestalt summary from what was spoken to him by Worby (the head verger) about his boyhood when his father was working in Southminster Cathderal, as part of the Gothic Revival, to the demands of Dean Burscough (cf similar things in the Burford of MRJ’s ‘Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb’ I happened to review yesterday).

Worby’s account that mainly features a plain Altar-Tomb with its telling gap  now crowed wider to reveal ….. what is mentioned in Isaiah 34  if not by Tractate Middoth’s 334!

There is even a boy here whistling with two fingers to match the young shilling siffleur of Burnstow! And so please revisit parts of this scary experience with me…

“‘I suppose it is Worby, and not a substitute,’ thought Lake to himself, as he walked up the nave.”  — and so, could the red-eyed lamia or satyr have by now shape-shifted into or actually become this older version of Worby, and so is telling its own tale through him? And into anyone else who tries to re-tell, even piecemeal, this tale?

“The work of demolition began with the choir screen and organ loft, and proceeded gradually eastwards, disclosing, as Worby said, many interesting features of older work.” 

Even the pulpit is removed revealing the Altar-Tomb… and then…

“Dr. Ayloff was one of the first to go, with some affection of the muscles of the thorax, which took him painfully at night. And at many services the number of choirmen and boys was very thin.”

And thinner and iller people grew….

“The structure had been most carefully boxed in under the pulpit-base, so that such slight ornament as it possessed was not defaced; only on the north side of it there was what looked like an injury; a gap between two of the slabs… […] …hateful nightmares. Gradually there formulated itself a suspicion—which grew into a conviction—that the alterations in the Cathedral had something to say in the matter. The widow of a former old verger, a pensioner of the Chapter of Southminster, was visited by dreams,…”

….and some of these dreams will remain in your own dreams should you read this story? — yes, thinner and iller…

; a great, bracing, visionary ill.” — as the author Elizabeth Taylor puts it in The Ambush, something I reviewed earlier today. A writer who often writes about dresses….

 “‘You may as well brush my skirt, Frank,’ said the lady, ‘it must have got covered with dust, I’m sure.’ He obeyed dutifully; but,…” — it was her dress that was snatched inside the tomb, just like the boys’ music score and the  frayed edge they kept back being ‘wet and black’, before they watched more horrors from the triforium.

And the boy’s dog that was haunted by ‘the crying’ ….a dog that was harboured in the boy’s bed, much to his mother’s chagrin. And I shall ever hear things from this story, as well as see them. The horror on man-legs when it is dark, and quirkier things, too, the foil of which act to make the horror seem worse.

“Well, things was rougher, you see, fifty years ago, and I got a nip from the counter-tenor behind me that I remembered.”

“…and do do when I see my opportunity.” (not a typo)


All my M.R. James reviews:

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