The Demon in the Cathedral

(A Jamesian Hoax)

by Rosemary Pardoe

(from the Ghost Story Society's All Hallows 1, 1989.)

An article entitled "The Demon in the Cathedral", by Robert Freeman Bound and Ramon A. Pantoja Lopez, appeared in the September 1977 issue of Fate magazine. This was swiftly followed, in the February 1978 edition, by a number of irate letters from readers, claiming that the authors had copied many details in their supposedly factual account from M.R. James' story "An Episode of Cathedral History" (1914).

A comparison of the two pieces shows that the readers most definitely had a point! The Bound and Lopez article describes a mysterious, ancient manuscript which the writers had managed to borrow. It tells of a demon which caused havoc in the Cathedral at Mexico City around 1629. According to the manuscript, a marble sarcophagus suddenly appeared in the Cathedral during a (completely historical) flood at that time. After certain strange occurrences the coffin was opened to exorcise the contents, but before this could be done the demon escaped, leaving a number of dead bodies in its wake. Here, the manuscript ends, but Bound and Lopez claim that the demon must later have been captured, as they found a reference in the church records to the rediscovery of the coffin, in 1935, with exorcism papers pasted to its lid. The sarcophagus was then relocated in a basement crypt where, apparently, it remains. The ancient manuscript was sold to a museum in Barcelona.

Superficial resemblances between this and the story of "An Episode of Cathedral History" will already be obvious. M.R. James' tale tells how, during alteration work in 1840 in the Cathedral of "Southminster", an altar tomb is discovered, hidden in the base of the pulpit. After certain strange occurrences, including the spread of a sort of wasting disease in the Cathedral Close, the authorities decide to open the sarcophagus to see what is inside (no exorcism in MRJ's down-to-earth world!). At the opening the demon escapes, leaving several people in a state of severe shock, and is presumably never seen again. The empty tomb remains in the Cathedral. The demon is typically Jamesian: "A thing like a man, all over hair, and two great eyes to it"; which sounds much more unpleasant than the rather boring Mexican creature with its "hideous form... incredibly ugly, neither human nor animal."

It is only when individual episodes from each of the accounts are examined that the very close resemblances become clear.

In both the Mexican and Southminster tombs there is a small gap, through which Something is seen. A priest, sitting on the Mexico City coffin, has a jagged hole torn in his habit and the cloth disappears. An artist, sitting on the Southminster tomb, has a jagged hole torn in her dress and the cloth likewise disappears. Both of the victims believe that they must have torn their clothes on a nail.

The organist at Mexico City sticks a roll of music into the gap in the coffin, only to find that something inside is attempting to pull it out of his hand. He manages to get the roll out but with the end missing and some of the remaining portion badly charred. Meanwhile at Southminster, MRJ's version has one of the choir boys pushing a roll of music into the hole. The same thing happens here, except that his remaining torn end is all black and slimy. The piece of cloth and the remnant of sheet music are rediscovered in both cases when the tombs are vacated.

When the Mexican sarcophagus is found again in 1935, there is a supposedly Latin inscription painted on it: "Iva cuvabit lamia", which is meaningless, but is translated in the article as "Here you will find something hidden". MRJ's tomb, after it has been left empty, has a metal cross attached to it, inscribed "Ibi cubavit lamia". This is a quotation from the Vulgate edition of the Bible, Isaiah xxxiv verse 14, and translates as "There shall be the lair of the night monster" (or witch or vampire).

In the February 1978 issue of Fate, Bound and Lopez reply to their critics by claiming that they have never read anything by M.R. James, that his stories are not available in Mexico, and that any similarities are purely coincidental. Coincidence can clearly be ruled out, despite their protestations, and so, presumably, can the possibility that MRJ somehow saw the mysterious manuscript and based his story on it. In fact the existence of the document is thrown into even more grave doubt than it would otherwise be by the authors' confusion as to what information they got from it. By way of apologising for garbling the Latin inscription they say, "The ancient manuscript we copied it from was quite dim in spots..." This may be so, but the inscription was only found on the coffin in 1935! They supposedly took it from church records, and not the "ancient manuscript" at all. One might have hoped that, if the document really existed, Bound and Lopez would have remembered which bits of their story they got from it, and which came from elsewhere.

Yet there are tantalising hints that the authors may not have been the hoaxers but the hoaxed! There are no word for word correspondences between their article and MRJ's story; in fact nothing comes close apart from the inscription. This might indicate that they got their account, not from the original story, but from a mangled and altered version given to them by someone else and accepted by them at face value. If this is the case, the most likely culprits are the mysterious Professor Carrasco and his 'aide' Sr Jorge Zaragoza Carmona. It was these two who lent the manuscript to Bound and Lopez, told them where to look in the church records for the 1935 account, and told them that the manuscript had been sold to Barcelona. As hoaxes go, this would not be a very difficult one to carry through.

Leaving that question unresolved, one thing about this case is certain: that it is one of the most obvious examples of a fictional ghost story influencing a 'factual' account. How many other descriptions of real ghosts owe a lot, or even everything, to a fictional tale? It must happen quite often, and sometimes, though not always, is fairly easy to spot. Any ostensibly factual ghost story which has a neat and appropriate resolution must be considered doubtful, for real ghosts seldom act according to a plot. An extension of this is the link between fiction and the urban folk-tale. Which, for instance, came first, the phantom hitch-hiker legend or fiction about it? And did the apocryphal tale recounted by Michael Arlen as part of his "The Gentleman from America" exist before he wrote his story? Certainly it has been told in many versions since. Much research remains to be done in these areas.

Copyright © 1989 Rosemary Pardoe

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