The 17th-century church of St Michan’s in Dublin is a dull enough building, known for the curious human remains preserved in the exceptional dryness of its ancient crypt. When I was taken to see the celebrated ‘St Michan’s mummies’, 60 years ago, I already knew of the church from M.R. James, whose tales of supernatural terror entirely possessed my nine-year-old imagination. We entered the crypt, and it was as though my schoolfellows and I had stumbled into the pages of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ or another of the horrid inventions in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Led past stacks of disintegrating coffins, from which skulls and yellowing bones spilled across the dusty floor, we were introduced to the crypt’s principal attraction: the strangely preserved corpse of the so-called Crusader – a gigantic figure whose piously crossed legs had been broken to fit them into his narrow sarcophagus. The leathery cadaver was propped in a sitting position, so that visitors could shake his carefully extended right hand, its taut skin burnished to a nicotine-coloured gloss. The sacristan, with ghoulish satisfaction, informed us that this hand was so worn from years of morbid greeting that it would soon have to be replaced. Noticing that he did not say from whence the substitute might be obtained, we instinctively clenched our fists and thrust them as deep into our pockets as they would go. Satisfied with the effect, the old man moved on to the climax of his gothic routine: ‘Now, boys,’ he announced in his adenoidal Dublin brogue, ‘you might have noticed the very large number of cobwebs decorating the coffins down here – they are made by a most unusual race of spiders, creatures peculiar to this crypt. There’s nothing at all in these dark passageways for them to eat – so it has been generally concluded that they must be a breed of CANNIBAL SPIDERS!’ We trembled.
LRB 1 December 2011 | PDF Download