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EpCathedralHistAlistairWood

Recent illustration for "An Episode of Cathedral History" by Alistair Wood.

"An Episode of Cathedral History' is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in the June 10 1914 issue of the magazine Cambridge Review. It was published again in 1919 as part of the anthology A Thin Ghost and Others. Some readers consider "An Episode of Cathedral History" to be a vampire story. It has been included in anthologies of vampire fiction.

In the story, renovations to a cathedral reveal a long-hidden tomb. It is unknown who is buried in it. Shortly after the tomb is discovered, people who live near to the cathedral begin to die and others fall sick. One symptom of the sickness is that its sufferers have terrible nightmares. Strange noises are heard at night and a shadowy figure with red eyes is seen.

Plot

A historian named Mr. Lake is sent to to examine the archives of the Cathedral of Southminster and to write a report about them. During his stay in Southminster, he rents a room in the house of the verger Mr. Worby. Lake and Worby get on well with each other and enjoy each other's company.

At about nine o'clock one evening, Worby has to go over to the cathedral to fetch some papers. He invites Lake to go with him so that Lake can see what the cathedral looks like at night. Lake is happy to accept the invitation. As Worby is unlocking the cathedral's door, Lake asks him if he has ever found anybody locked inside the building. Worby replies that he once found a drunken sailor locked inside the cathedral. The sailor was very distressed and said that he would probably never go inside a church again. Lake asks Worby if, while in the cathedral at night, he is ever frightened by sudden sounds, such as those made by falling books or a door slamming shut in the wind. Worby replies that noises do not frighten him anymore, although there was a time when they did. He points out a plain-looking stone tomb with a large metal cross on its north side. Lake says that, unless the tomb is that of a notable person, it is not really worth paying any attention to it. Worby says that there is no record of whose tomb it is. There is, however, a story attached to it. Worby says that he would like to tell the story to Lake when they get home. Later that evening, Worby tells Lake about events which took place in Southminster some fifty years earlier.

Even though his voice is not particularly good, as a boy, Worby is a member of the cathedral choir. His father works in the cathedral as a carpenter. A new dean, named Burscrough, takes charge of the cathedral. Dean Burscrough is an enthusiastic supporter of the Gothic Revival movement in architecture. He wants to have the interior of the cathedral stripped of everything that was added to it after medieval times. He tells Worby's father that a pulpit will have to be removed. Canon Ayloft tries to persuade the Dean to leave the pulpit where it is. The Canon's pleas, however, fall on deaf ears. Canon Ayloft never sets foot in the cathedral again. He dies soon afterwards, as do many other older people who live near the cathedral.

When the pulpit is removed, a plain stone tomb is discovered underneath it. The tomb does not have an inscription. There are no ornaments of any kind on it. There is a gap of about three inches across between two slabs on the tomb's north side. Attempts are made to find out who was buried in the tomb but no information can be found.

Shortly after the tomb is discovered, several of the older people who live near the cathedral die. Many people who live near the cathedral fall sick. Those who suffer from the sickness have horrible nightmares. The widow of a former verger frequently dreams that she sees a shadowy figure leave the cathedral at night. Each night, the figure goes in a different direction and enters several houses. Just as dawn approaches, the figure goes back to the cathedral. At the end of the woman's dream, the shadowy figure turns to face her. She sees that it has red eyes.

A historian goes to the cathedral to write a report about its restoration. His wife goes with him. She is to draw sketches that will accompany the report. The woman sits on the tomb to draw one of her sketches. When she stands up, her husband points out that a piece of her dress has been torn off. They look for the missing piece of fabric but cannot find it.

The young Worby's dog begins to get nervous at night. Worby allows the dog to sleep with him in his bedroom, something that he has to keep a secret from his mother. Shortly afterwards, the people of Southminster start to hear strange noises at night. Worby's parents tell him that the sounds are being made by cats. Worby overhears a conversation between two canons, named Henslow and Lyall. Henslow asks Lyall if he slept well the previous night. Lyall replies that he did not because there was, "rather too much of Isaiah 34:14". Henslow asks Lyall what that means. Lyall chastises Henslow for not knowing his Bible well enough and refuses to say anymore. When Worby gets home, he looks up Isaiah 34:14 in his own Bible. He reads, "the satyr shall cry to his fellow".[1] He wonders if the strange noises he has heard at night have been made by a satyr.

Worby and his friend, another choirboy named Evans, overhear Palmer the mason shouting at one of his assistants. Palmer chastises the assistant for not having filled in the gap in the tomb. The assistant says that he filled in the gap with plaster that must have fallen out. The piece of plaster is found some three feet away from the tomb.

Evans looks through the gap in the tomb and says that he can see something shiny. Worby says that, if there is something inside the tomb, they should "stir it up' by shoving something into the gap. Evans rolls up some sheet music. He pushes it through the gap in the tomb several times. Each time, nothing happens. Worby does the same. Again, nothing happens. It suddenly occurs to Worby to whistle before shoving the sheet music into the hole. That time, Worby hears something stirring inside the tomb. He feels that something has taken hold of the sheet music. With difficulty, Evans and Worby pull the sheet music out again. They find that the end of the page has been torn off and that the torn edge is wet and dirty.

Repeated efforts are made to fill in the gap in the tomb. They all fail. One morning, Worby gathers from a remark his father makes at breakfast that something unusual is to happen at the cathedral after the morning service the following day. When Worby asks what is to happen, his father angrily tells him to mind his own business.

That night Worby hears the strange sound again, louder and closer than he has ever heard it before. He then hears noises outside his bedroom door but realizes that they are only being made by his parents. He hears them say that they hope their son did not hear the sound. Worby looks out of the window. He sees two small lights of a dull red color.

After the morning service, Worby and Evans secretly stay inside the cathedral. They go up some stairs and are able to look directly down onto the tomb. All of the doors of the cathedral are shut. Canon Henslow, the Dean, Palmer the mason, Worby's father and several other men, all of whom are carrying crowbars, gather. The tomb is opened by prizing apart the two slabs with the gap between them on the north side. A loud crash, like the sound of a lot of wood falling to the floor, is heard. The Dean falls over after exclaiming, "Good God!" Worby's father is seen with his face in his hands. Many of the men try to run away but Palmer stops them. When the Dean is helped up, he chastises the men for making a fuss about nothing. The inside of the tomb is examined. Nothing is found, apart from a piece of cloth that looks like it was torn from a dress and a torn piece of sheet music. Both items are obviously modern and, according to the Dean, are of no interest. The Dean chastises Palmer for having left one of the cathedral's doors open. Palmer apologizes, although he is certain that he shut the door.

Later that day, Worby admits to his father that he was inside the cathedral when the tomb was opened. Worby's father asks him if he saw what knocked the Dean over. Worby replies that he did not. Worby's father says that the Dean was knocked down by something that looked like a man, except that it was covered in hair and had "two great eyes".

Lake agrees not to tell anyone else the story connected to the tomb in Southminster Cathedral while Worby and Evans are still alive.

At the conclusion of "An Episode of Cathedral History", it is stated that Canon Lyall paid for the metal cross which is now on the tomb's north side. Written on the cross are the words, "IBI CUBAVIT LAMIA".[2]

Footnotes

  1. In the King James Bible, the full verse of Isaiah 34:14 reads, "The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow, the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest." Alternative translations of "satyr" include "male goat", "wild goat', "hairy goat", "hairy one", "demon" and "goat demon". Alternative translations of "screech owl" include "night bird", "night animal', "night creature", "night monster", "night hag", "Lilith", "Lamia" and "demoness of the night".
  2. The words "ibi cubavit lamia" are taken from the Vulgate Bible translation of Isaiah 34:14. The Latin text is in the past tense. It can be translated as "There laid the screech owl" (or "night monster", see footnote above). This could be understood as meaning that the shadowy creature with red eyes no longer lies in the tomb because it has been destroyed by the power of the cross. It could also be understood as meaning that the creature is no longer there because it escaped out into the world when the tomb was opened.

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