They were horribly thin

>> Thursday, October 29, 2009

My own view, and I suspect I'm not alone in it, is that nobody wrote ghost stories quite the way Montague Rhodes James did. Writing around the turn of the 20th Century, James' stories mix a quiet elegance with wry humor and a brilliant sense of the mundane that has become a staple of contemporary horror fiction. Frequently in an M.R. James tale, there's not much that happens and much of what does happen seems terribly ordinary--which makes the little macabre things all the darker and worse. Pre-James, horror fiction in general and ghost stories in particular tended to be Gothic, and Gothic fiction tended to be over-the-top (take Horace Walpole's The Castle Of Otranto, one of the seminal Gothic tales, which begins with a character being smashed to bits beneath a giant helmet "an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers" that mysteriously fell from the sky like a 16-ton weight in a Python episode), taking place in desolate castles and upon infinite moors and involving various tragic royals; James' little tales, on the other hand, occur on trains and in college offices, and involve fairly dull and ordinary people--you know, like you and me.

"The Mezzotint," here recited by Robert Powell for the BBC in a 1986 rendition, is one of James' best, a story that slowly unpeels itself and is worse for what is implied than what is said. It's also the earliest example I'm aware of of a horror trope that's become especially popular in horror movies since The Ring: the image (painting, photograph or titular engraving of the James tale) that changes in horrible ways when nobody's looking at it. In classic James fashion, there's also a certain amount of dry humor interlaced with the whole thing (one of my favorite James lines: "But those who are familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to lawn-tennis."). I feel it's my duty to say that notwithstanding some half-hearted attempts by the director to incorporate some dramatic scenes within Powell's performance, this is Powell reciting a ghost story; you might enjoy it as much or more if you simply play the videos in a tab and listen to them as you might an audiobook. If you enjoy the story at all, which I hope you do. James' stories may be firmly set and told in the style and manner of an earlier age, but he really was the best.

The original story may be read here.

"The Mezzotint," by M.R. James, as told by Robert Powell:


Anne C. Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 7:59:00 PM EDT  

Austen's Northanger Abbey is a delightful skewering of the Gothic style and is appreciated best if one also reads (either before or after) The Mysteries of Udolpho.

That being said, I agree. The naturalistic horror is the better (or worse) horror.

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