Tuesday Terror! The Mezzotint by MR James

An artistic haunting…

the-mezzotint

Last week I featured Rosy Thornton’s deliciously spooky story Mad Maudlin, and to my great pleasure she popped in to the comments afterwards. She confirmed that the pub in the story is indeed The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, as I had surmised, but she then went on to tell me that “At the risk of sounding pretentious, I wrote the story as a sort of homage to M.R. James’s ghost story The Mezzotint in which figures mysteriously appear and disappear from an engraving.” So that seemed like the natural choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Mezzotint by MR James

MR James
MR James

Mr Williams is the curator of the art department of a university and is responsible for acquiring new items. He often does business with a reliable dealer, Mr Britnell. One day he receives the new catalogue from Mr Britnell, together with an accompanying note…

Dear Sir,

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. Britnell.

Trusting the man’s judgement, Mr Williams asks him to send the item on approval. When it arrives, it turns out it is a mezzotint of a house…

It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre.

There is a torn off label on the back which was clearly once the address, but now shows only — ngley Hall,ssex. Disappointed at the ordinariness of the mezzotint, not to mention the ridiculously high price Mr Britnell is asking for it, Mr Williams lays the picture aside, meaning to return it the following day. But that evening Mr Williams has a visit from a friend who, during the course of the conversation, picks up the picture. Mr Williams confirms it’s from Mr Britnell and remarks on the poor quality of it, and the lack of any figures to give it some interest…

‘It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,’ said Binks; ‘but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure, just on the edge in front.’

ghost-stories-of-an-antiquary

Mr Williams looks again, and sure enough…

…indeed there was — hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving — the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Assuming he had simply missed the small figure earlier, Mr Williams agrees it makes the mezzotint a little more interesting, and again lays it aside. Later that evening, after dinner, Mr Williams (clearly a sociable creature) has a few more friends in for drinks. He casually hands the picture to a colleague who is also interested in art, without looking at it again himself. So he’s a little surprised when his friend comments…

It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.’

But he thinks no more about it, till he’s later preparing for bed by the light of a single candle…

The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Image by mcsorley
Image by mcsorley

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a good little story with some spooky moments! The picture continues to change, gradually revealing a rather horrific story, and when Mr Williams manages to track down the history of the house, he finds that it tells of a tragic crime that took place there some years earlier. It’s well written, with quite a lot of humour as well as the spooky stuff.

I must be honest and say that it didn’t tingle my spine much. It’s imaginative and he tells the story well, but there’s no sense of peril – the picture appears to present no threat to Mr Williams. So while the story behind the picture is scary, it’s distanced from the reader by being seen at a remove, if that makes sense. And all the humour and friendly interactions between Mr Williams and his colleagues take away from any build-up of tension. I know lots of people think of MR James as one of the best writers of ghost stories, and admittedly I haven’t read a lot of him, but his style never leaves me quivering although I do enjoy the imagination and the writing. Truthfully, I found Rosy Thornton’s story much spookier, especially the ending where she leaves it beautifully ambiguous, whereas MR James wraps everything up all nice and neat. So, for me, this is a case where the homage works better than the original…

If you’d like to read The Mezzotint (about 4,500 words), here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The propentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week...
The porpentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week…

60 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Mezzotint by MR James

  1. I read this tale when I was much younger and remember it being fairly creepy to my young self! The figure crawling on all fours to the house I found quite scary at the time. I don’t remember it well, but think I recall figures being seen at the windows and whatnot. I’m going to have a read of this again later. And also how super that Rosy Thornton popped up in the comments! Now, if you review one of my good friend Hugh’s books, he might pop up too…
    (Those porpentines are delightful! I made a little squeak when I saw the picture! Aw!!)

    • The window is indeed important! I don’t know what it is about his writing that doesn’t spook me – I enjoy his stories but usually remain un-goosepimpled. I know! It’s always nice when an author pops in – so long as it’s been a positive review, of course! Haha! But I’d be complaining about the sex and language – poor man! It’d be worse than having to put up with Catchpool… 😉 (Aren’t they adorable? Awwwww!!)

      • It is a very gentle style of horror, definitely! Which is fine, just not great for campfire-style spookiness 🙂 Poor Hugh – I did promise to do something about his books on my blog but haven’t got around to it yet. Perhaps as a finale to the Poirot parody, that would be fitting. Although Hastings fans will be shocked… 😉

        • I will be reviewing his narration of Poirot soon – maybe a couple of weeks. And that’ll be 5-star for sure! But I don’t suppose he cares about that as much as he will about his own writing. Haha! It’s odd how difficult I find it to imagine Hastings writing about sex… 😉

          • Oooh good, I shall be sure to tweet him a link when you do, he will be delighted!
            Not just any old sex – lesbian sex, rape, drug-fuelled sex – what’s weirder is I have Hastings’ voice as my internal monologue when I read. Feels very wrong!

            • Hahaha! I can’t get my head round it either! Couldn’t you persuade him to write something a bit… well… cosier?? Part of me really wants to read one, but I know – well, we both know – I’d hate it with every fibre of my being! Whatever would Poirot have said??

            • It’s almost like someone said to him ‘You know what Hugh, if you want to make it as a writer you need to shake off the Captain Hastings image. Try something a bit edgier’. And he literally went and wrote everything anti-Hastings he could possibly think of. The stories are quite good and I liked the characters, it’s just a bit… unexpected! You would definitely hate them. Poirot would have had an absolute fit! I am still working up the courage to send him a link to Never A Cross Word…

            • Haha – if ever there was a case for a nom de plume, this has to be it! I can imagine if my old mum was still alive, me buying her one of these for her birthday thinking “Aw! A book by Captain Hastings – she’ll love that!” and then her never speaking to me again! You have to wonder how many grannies get a shock in their Christmas stockings…

              Oh, you should! But if you don’t like to, can I? Casually, of course… I think he’d love it!

            • That’s exactly what happened to me!! I thought the exact thing… luckily I am not easily offended. I have to say, if it wasn’t for the fact Hugh had written it I would have given up early on. I’m actually glad I didn’t, as I genuinely enjoyed them, but it’s not the sort of thing I usually go for.
              Oh please do! Casually, obviously. There might not be enough sex and violence in it for his liking… but I’d be so chuffed if he liked it! 🙂

            • Haha! I think I told you I saw him being interviewed about them and was shocked to my socks! That was the only thing that saved me!

              Done! If it turns out be too subtle, I’ll do it again more blatantly in a few days time… 😉

  2. I was reading your post and scrolling down, a little tired and out of sorts and perhaps not paying due attention, Just as I read “crawling on all fours” something changed on my screen and scared me just a little, Perhaps your review is scarier than the story …. 🙂

    • Hahaha! You noticed! Well done – you’re the only one who has so far! Isn’t it just a fabulous little GIF? The thing I enjoy most about reviewing these classic horror stories is the brilliant illustrations you can find for them all over the internet. 🙂

  3. I hadn’t thought of this story for years, FictionFan! It is a good little story, isn’t it? Perhaps not as bone-chilling as some other tales of terror out there, but it’s a good ‘un. And I do like the device of using a photograph/mezzotint. I think that’s quite clever.

    • I hadn’t read it before, but I enjoyed it even if it didn’t startle the porpy too much. I always do like MR James’ style of writing, although I don’t often find him scary. Yes, I liked the idea of the picture changing too – I shall keep a close eye on the photos of the cats – you never know what might appear!!

    • Yes, it’s all in the style – I felt this story could have been much scarier if only the narrator hadn’t been so calm about the whole thing! But it’s still enjoyable…

    • Certainly loads of people find James’ stories spooky, but though I like his writing style and always enjoy them, somehow they don’t give me nightmares! But both the story and Rosy Thornton’s book are well worth reading – enjoy! And thanks for popping in. 😀

    • I like the kind that are a bit spine-tingling rather than absolutely terrifying! This one is fun without being too scary – I hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it! Thanks for popping in! 😀

  4. I read this long ago, and remember the crawling figure quite clearly. I’ve never found M.R.James very creepy – for me, he’s definitely on the “cozy” end of the ghost story scale.

    • Yes, I agree – I enjoy his stories but they don’t really spook me. The figure in this one was good, though, but it would have been scarier if Mr Williams hadn’t been so unnaturally calm about the whole thing!

    • Yep, I have to admit that, although both stories are excellent, it was Rosy Thornton who got my goose pimples going – and the porpy agrees! This one is still very much worth reading though – his style makes it quite fun. 🙂

  5. I love that little GIF you found, FF! As I was reading, I caught something popping around on my screen and wondered what was going on. What a perfect accompaniment! I tend to like stories that tidy everything up neatly by the end, so I just might have to read this one. And what’s better than one porpentine? Two, of course!!

    • Ha! I’m glad you spotted the GIF – isn’t it great? So many creative people out there in internet world! This is a good little story even if the porpy and I weren’t terrified by it – hope you enjoy it, if you get time to read it! I couldn’t resist that adorable porpy pic… awww!!

  6. I’m so pleased you took up my suggestion and read this story – but disappointed it left you rather underwhelmed. I guess I’m a bit of a wimp, as a reader, when it comes to horror! I do like an nice, well-written ‘golden age’ ghost story, where the scare factor set up with just the required comfortable degree of shiver but safely contained within a vehicle where there is always a (for me, satisfying) sense of control, and of the conventional form. I suspect I’m old-fashioned in this respect, and that most modern readers expect more porpentine for their buck…

    • I always enjoy MR James’ writing – the little I’ve read – but somehow he rarely sets my spine tingling. But actually very few written stories do – possibly a lack of imagination on my part. I do need the narrator or central character to be in some kind of peril to really get me gasping, and Mr Williams seemed to take the whole thing pretty much in his stride! I’m sure if it had been me who’d spotted the figure moving, I’d have shrieked the place down… 😉 And I love an ambiguous ending, which is why yours left me quivering, while his left me appreciative but unruffled. It was fun making the comparison though, so thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Mr Britnell was unkind to send the picture to Mr Williams in the first place. I doubt he can keep his customers…
    How exciting to have the author drop in and tell you the background of the story!

    • You’re right – a word of warning wouldn’t have gone amiss! Plus why would he think people would actually pay more for a picture that terrified them half to death??

      I know! And so much fun to be able to compare the stories!

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s