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.