Before there were rules such as “don’t go in the basement” and “shoot ’em in the head”, there were other, deeper rules connected with spiritual warfare. Never take off your crucifix is one of these, underlined by the horror that visits the narrator of M.R. James’ title story. Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book is a collection of four spooky British tales, addressing haunted engravings, paintings and books. Unintentional humor arrives whenever the reader gains the painful shock of recognition: the main character is going to do something stupid, isn’t he? He couldn’t be that clueless, could he? Oh wait ~ he is. It’s the same principle that allows to enjoy the death of screen characters who are “too stupid to live”, perhaps best demonstrated by Paris Hilton’s lame attempt to flee from a serial killer in “House of Wax” by running six feet away and pretending to be invisible.
In “The Mezzotint”, a painting changes whenever it is left alone: “there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.” What would you do if you had such a painting, and it did such a thing? Not what this character does. And that’s why horror is so scary, and so much fun to view from the safe distance of outside the screen, or the book, or the speakers.
David Newlyn does a wonderful job scoring these four stories with four pieces of his own. He creates a soundtrack of menace without veering into all-out fright. In cinematic terms, it’s the equivalent of growing suspense instead of gross-out. Creep, creep, knock. What is that sound? On two dominant occasions, Newlyn matches the prose sound-for-word: the title piece contains an electronic reflection of the passage, “I heard a thin metallic voice laughing high up in the tower” beginning at 2:10, while the constant presence of a harsh rasp echoes “the curious noises – the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day.” And in “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”, the suspicious death of an archdeacon (“The poor, dear archdeacon!”) is scored by a muted, distended choir that eventually yields to foreground chanting, reflecting the fearsome choral song found in the story: let Satan stand at his right hand. Such faithful renderings are not always the stock of the Book Report Series – many artists choose more abstract renditions – but Newlyn’s adherence to form makes this entry one of the most powerful of the series to date. (Richard Allen)