Superstition reveals its advantages, I suppose, in finding creative ways to manipulate younger souls. The logic behind such an assumption is quite primitive: these souls are deemed too callow to remain within reason's boundaries, and must be scared into doing unwittingly what they would not do if they had their wits about them. Hence the little child placing a tooth beneath his pillow, the avoidance of leaning, forty-five degree ladders, and that old chestnut about a nosey cat. Superstition is not coterminous, however, with the notions of faith lumped together unceremoniously under the rubric of organized religion. In part because organized religion for all its faults was never meant to scare anyone except those who fear things they cannot know (we have other terms for these miscreants), and in part because religion and its edifices, when used correctly, are supposed to imbue us with hope not frighten us into slavery. Which brings us to this splendid tale.
Our protagonist is a certain Mr. Lake, "a learned gentleman ... deputed to examine and report upon the archives of the Cathedral of Southminster." Yet this delightful task is mired with difficulties. Upon arrival Lake is immediately shown an unmarked tomb about which his guide, a Mr. Worby, promises him a tale he shall not soon forget. It so happens that as a child Worby and the village of Southminster were plagued by what may be exaggerated into a mild form of the plague. During a span of several rough months, hundreds were stricken with viral infections of every kind, with the most senior residents subdued into the grave. What was the nature of this so-called plague? Something that can only be hinted at:
The season was undoubtedly a very trying one. Whether the church was built on a site that had once been a marsh, as was suggested, or for whatever reason, the residents in its immediate neighbourhood had, many of them, but little enjoyment of the exquisite sunny days and the calm nights of August and September. To several of the older people – Dr. Ayloff, among others, as we have seen – the summer proved downright fatal, but even among the younger, few escaped either a sojourn in bed for a matter of weeks, or at the least, a brooding sense of oppression, accompanied by 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, which she retailed to her friends, of a shape that slipped out of the little door of the south transept as the dark fell in, and flitted – taking a fresh direction every night – about the close, disappearing for a while in house after house, and finally emerging again when the night sky was paling. She could see nothing of it, she said, but that it was a moving form: only she had an impression that when it returned to the church, as it seemed to do in the end of the dream, it turned its head: and then, she could not tell why, but she thought it had red eyes. Worby remembered hearing the old lady tell this dream at a tea-party in the house of the chapter clerk. Its recurrence might, perhaps, he said, be taken as a symptom of approaching illness; at any rate before the end of September the old lady was in her grave.
The time is 1840 and the mood is definitively Gothic; so claims at least Worby, who remembers the Dean of the Cathedral as "very set on the Gothic period." We may conclude from this fixation that the Cathedral, which exists as a monument to an Entity both palpable and intangible, reflects the fears and concerns of the villagers insofar as they are prisoners to their past. And in their past, the fifteenth century to be precise, a tomb was carved, laid, and left unencumbered by an eternal epithet.
Lake, who has some qualms about the methods of restoration in the village, decides to let Worby keep talking, at which point he relates other disturbing details. Firstly, some of the villagers share the same nightmares. One comments that he slept poorly because of the visual enactment of this Biblical verse; screech-owl, as some versions have it, or not, Worby's parents impute the noises to cats. Secondly, there is the matter of the unrest shimmering under the placid surface of rustic life. One morning in particular remains in Worby's memory:
That was a funny morning altogether: nothing seemed to go right. The organist he stopped in bed, and the minor Canon he forgot it was the 19th day and waited for the Venite; and after a bit the deputy he set off playing the chant for evensong, which was a minor; and then the Decani boys were laughing so much they couldn't sing, and when it came to the anthem the solo boy he got took with the giggles, and made out his nose was bleeding, and shoved the book at me what hadn't practised the verse and wasn't much of a singer if I had known it. Well, things were rougher, you see, fifty years ago, and I got a nip from the counter-tenor behind me that I remembered.
There is also the matter of the dress of the wife of a visiting Fellow of this society, and what happens when a pair of whippersnappers decide to cram some sheet music into one of the shoddy tomb's crevices – but these things can be discovered by the curious reader.
The setting – an old church, Northern Europe, a hazy countryside of mystagogues and whispered legends – is typical for the stories of this author, long a regular on these pages. James produced tighter and more recondite works, but this thin scrap of fictionalized cathedral lore has all the makings of a cure for restfulness. Particularly unnerving are the description of what is seen emerging from that tomb and what then is finally inscribed on the stone that restrains it tenuously. Make that very tenuously.