Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Tractate Middoth - BBC Two review, and Mark Gatiss on M.R. James

Well, then, what did Santa bring you? I am now the happy owner of Darryl Jones' edition of M.R. James' Collected Ghost Stories, and this acquisition coincided with a Christmas Day James-fest on BBC Two. Mark Gatiss wrote and directed an adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, and then presented an excellent documentary about James' life and work.

The Tractate Middoth is not one of James' most famous tales, even though it combines an atmospheric library setting with a malevolent testator of the kind often found in Golden Age detective fiction. I've always had a soft spot for fiction dealing with mysterious wills - so much so that I'm not sure why I haven't written more myself. As for.James' story, it has to be said, suffers from a central flaw - reliance on a huge coincidence. One question in my mind was how Gatiss would address this.

His approach was not to tinker with that part of the plot, although he did jazz things up by changing the period in which the story was set - an initial scene in the 30s preceded the events of the main story taking place in the 50s. Viewers were distracted from the coincidence by the inclusion of small but engaging parts for several well-known and likeable actors - Eleanor Bron, Roy Barraclough and Una Stubbs. David Ryall played the wonderfully named Rant, while John Castle was as intense and sinister as ever as one of Rant's hopeful heirs. Gatiss's method worked pretty well, though a more daring attempt to explain more plausibly how the young librarian happened to come across the one other person desperately seeking a book to be found in his library would have been welcome. The Tractate Middoth does not rank as an absolute masterpiece, either as prose or as television but nevertheless supplies good light entertainment in both media.

I really enjoyed Gatiss's study of James, whose sheltered life in Eton and Cambridge was one of comfort and privilege. Like so many other Victorian writers, though (Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Stevenson are obvious examples) he was prey to dark imaginings, and although he was far from prolific, he produced ghost stories once or twice a year from the late nineteenth century until not long before his death in the 30s. Gatiss even discovered a charming old man who had known James at the end of his life, and liked and admired him. A fascinating man and writer, and having read his stories from time to time in anthologies for many years, I look forward to reading his collected works.

15 comments:

Christine said...

I enjoyed both these programmes, too, and afterwards treated myself to a rereading of 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook.' Wonderful!

Sarah said...

Happy Christmas, Martin, I watched this with my brother yesterday. It was enjoyable enough although not much to it. Loved the acting though. Looking forward to your posts in 2014. Will Sherlock be your first one?

John said...

Coincidentally, I went looking online for BBC productions of ghost stories to watch on Christmas Eve. I found nearly all of the M.R. James episodes from that collection you mention and managed to download them. Then I also found Mark Gattis' three part series CROOKED HOUSE done back in 2008. The trailer was so creepy and enticing I decided to watch that directly online. As it was nearly three hours and I had found it late at night I had little time to watch or do anything else on Christmas Eve.

CROOKED HOUSE is an homage to M.R. James' antiquarian ghost tales and the Amicus horror anthology movies of the 1970s. There are three interconnected stories all about a "house that attracts evil." The final tale is the best and the way it connects to the first two was brilliantly done. Gattis perfectly captured the spirit of James and added his own peculiarly lurid touches that recalled Dennis Wheatley and a few other more pulpy supernatural writers. I enjoyed it a lot. If you've not seen it I highly recommend it. I found it --of course -- via the miracle of YouTube. But it may be available in a rental shop or for purchase over in your part of the world.

Anonymous said...

Of all the writers of the English ghost or horror story, I think James was the best. H. P. Lovecraft put him in the front rank in Supernatural Horror in Literature. I think the runners-up are Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and H. R. Wakefield. John Blackburn has done a great job with his horror novels. There is a biography of James By Michael Cox called M. R. James An Informal Portrait (1983). It seems to be out of print and tends to be expensive in the used book market. I think the best edition of James's stories is the annotated edition edited by S. T. Joshi and available in 2 volumes from Penguin.

A. said...

I was a little disappointed. This seemed to lack the sense of place and atmosphere of Lawrence Gordon Clarke's adaptations. This had a contemporary pace to it and there always seems to be a sense of barely restrained campery in Gatiss' work.

I would suggest that if you like James writings, then also seek out the work of Sheridan Le Fanu (a big influence on James) and the ghost stories of Walter De La Mare ('All Hallows' is a particular masterpiece.

Martin Edwards said...

Chrissie, Sarah, hi there, and compliments of the season - look forward to seeing you both again before long.
Yep, Sherlock will definitely be an early post!

Martin Edwards said...

John, I didn't know about Crooked House - many thanks for the tip.

Martin Edwards said...

Anon, I am interested to track down Michael Cox's book. He once came to visit me for the afternoon and I found him a delightful companion. We were discussing a potential writing project, but for reasons beyond our control, it never happened.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello A. I am very keen on Le Fanu. De La Mare I only know through one or two stories in anthologies.

Anonymous said...

De la Mare is good if you like a more literary ghost story. I would recommend getting the first volume of his collected short stories, entitled Short Stories 1895-1926 to see if you like him. It has all his short stories written in that time period, not just his ghost stories. It can be obtained at a reasonable price on Amazon.com.

Anonymous said...

Right now, the Cox book is overpriced. I had to wait about half a year before I got lucky and a reasonably priced copy came up for sale.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Anon. Good advice, and I'll take it.

Anonymous said...

MR James wrote wonderful stories...but you cannot read too many at one sitting, far too unnerving! Does anyone remember the old ITV series 'Tales Of The Unexpected' I think it was called, with the late and much lamented actor David Buck as the constant hero character? This featured many classic ghost stories, including The Traactate Middoth.
I too would recommend Haunted House - and anything written by Mark Gatiss, really, including a series of detective novels. He is also (drat him!) a very fine actor, as he showed in a wonderfully understated father in an episode about a missing child in the George Gently series, with Helen Baxendale as his wife. He is also, of course, Mycroft Holmes in the new Sherlock series he co-created.
There is a fascinating photo of James taken in 1933 when he opened at garden at Eton, where he was provost, in memory of his old tutor Henry Luxmoor. Apparently the photographer got very agitated when he developed the photo, for there, with his back to the camera, was Luxmoor himself. But had been dead for seven years when the photo was taken.
Which is a tale that reminds you of the story of the black Lab that turned up for the unveiling of the Dambusters memorial at Woodhall Spa. No-one knew where the dog came from; it posed for photos, then disappeared. Buteveryone who saw the dog was sure it was Guy Gibson's dog Nigger, killed in a road accident the night of the famous raid.Thus one uncanny tale leads to another.....Liz Gilbey

Anonymous said...

The ITV show that had a version of Tractate Middoth was 'Mystery & Imagination' not tales of the unexpected, sadly the episode is lost.

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