It’s a peculiar thing, this love we have for ghost stories at Christmas. Begun by Dickens but perfected by Montague Rhodes James, the Cambridge scholar who combined his knowledge of history with the darkest recesses of superstitious belief, concocting the perfect stories to chill the heart on a chill December evening.
The Tractate Middoth is a tale of dark deeds amongst the remotest stacks of a great library (how I love a good library story). A young librarian is tasked with retrieving a Hebrew text called the Tractate Middoth, when he finally discovers it he’s assailed by a grotesque creature filled with cobwebs. What other kind of monster would you expect to meet amongst the dusty depths of the archives?
‘Ah, libraries are fine places,’ said Mrs Simpson, putting down her work with a sigh; ‘But for all that, books have played me a sad turn, or rather a book has.’
Mark Gatiss has adapted the story, to be shown on BBC2 on Christmas Day. It’s part of a TV tradition dating back to the late 60s, and Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You. Gatiss, one of the forces behind the revivals of Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes knows what he’s doing when resurrecting much loved pieces of our cultural history.
With the Tractate Middoth he’s cannily chosen one of James’s most accessible stories. It has a central mystery that would intrigue Sherlock, a creature straight out of classic Doctor Who, and in its attractive young hero, Mr Garrett ‘a cheerful and pleasant-looking young man,’ an antidote to the usual fusty gentlemen who populate his stories.
Many of the usual M.R. James tropes are present and present and correct though; train journeys, quiet seaside towns and lurches into the truly horrific. James also conjures up one of his nastiest spectres in the form of the deceased (and excellently named) Dr. Rant.
‘Horrid old man!— that he was to be put, sitting at a table in his ordinary clothes, in a brick room that he’d had made underground in a field near his house. Of course the country people say he’s been seen about there in his old black cloak.’
I’ve not seen the adaptation yet, but after his William Hartnell drama, Adventures in Time in Space (also showing on Christmas Day), hopes are high. There’s an accompanying documentary as well which I have been lucky enough to see – M.R. James: Ghost Writer, also presented by Gatiss.
It’s that rarest of things, a factual programme that manages to completely capture the spirit of its subject. Gatiss inhabits James’s world, tootling around the places that informed his writing on a bicycle pausing to delivering his lines with sparkling sincerity.
I’d better mention that I’ve got a little vested interest in this tale, having worked on the initial development of the TV proposition. And this wasn’t the first time I’d had dealings with M.R James either. In 2004 I researched another documentary on the writer for BBC Four. We visited some of the locations central to his life, and met people including Lawrence Gordon Clark, director of many of the excellent BBC adaptations from the 70s.
Most memorably, director Pete Lawrence and I made a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of many of James’s stories – including The Tractate Middoth – the Suffolk coast. We made our way up the wind swept beaches still haunted by the ghost of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad and then inland to a rectory in the remote hamlet of Great Livermere, James’s childhood home. It’s a place with a very old, heavy feel, as Gatiss points out.
‘There’s a mysterious, remote atmosphere here. Even in the 19th century it must have felt like a place apart from the rest of England.’
The rectory, when we visited, had been turned into a bird sanctuary. The back yards filled with tall cages home to dozens of watchful owls. As Pete wandered off with his camera looking for ghosts in the bushes, I was introduced to a lady from the village. In the living room over tea she talked in some detail about her book (I think this one), charting the many ghosts that haunt the area. Ghosts that presumably haunted young Monty.
We left, Pete disappointed at lack of actual ghost sightings, me deciding to put off the archaeological dig I had lined up that afternoon. For a few minutes there I’d become a character in my very own M.R. James story. Happy Christmas Monty.