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

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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.

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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…

Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!