Episode 57: The Mezzotint by M R James

M R James

This is the third story we’ve done by M R James, previous ones being The Experiment and Episode 3: Whistle and I’ll Come to You.

We talked about James the man there. In a nutshell, he was an academic who had jobs at Eton College and Cambridge University. The heroes of his stories tend to be dusty old academics like himself. He is considered the godfather of the English ghost story, credited for moving the genre from the Gothic to a more modern incarnation. 

The Mezzotint

The Mezzotint was published in 1904 as part of James’s collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The story is a simple one. An academic, Mr Williams, has a job of collecting prints of English country houses and such scenes for his University college. This is such a narrow and particular job it’s a wonder to think that anyone had some a restricted role. He receives a catalogue from his dealer with a suggestion that he might like this particular mezzotint with a price tag of two guineas which seems exorbitant for such an amateur work. But as different people look at the mezzotint, it improves in quality and seems to be playing out a story. This leads to a detective investigation to find out where it is and the history of the place portrayed. So, there are two streams to the story: the rational detective work and the supernatural events unfolding in the picture which are quite demonic. James is famous for eschewing the cosy ghost story. He wanted his stories to be nasty. He has a real gift for introducing odd and jarring elements into his story which are disintinctly unnerving. There is something about the description of the figure, whose face is obscured apart from a domed forehead and some straggling hairs.And of course the theft of a child. Children coming to harm is always a nasty element. When the real-world investigation turns up the story of Francis having the poacher Gawdy hung and Gawdy promising revenge, it seems that the only explanation is that Gawdy returned after his death to exact his revenge. The other delightful aspect of the story is the series of in-jokes. James used to read his stories aloud to his colleagues, and so the in jokes about their obsession with golf and the snobby comments of the Sadducean Professor of Ophiology probably got some laughs. Some other features may not be familiar to the modern reader who has not been to Oxford of Cambridge, so the references to ‘sporting’ doors and ‘skips’ and ‘Hall’ are an insight into a world now gone outside these august establishments.

New Book!

Tony’s latest book, London Horror Stories is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US. Ghost and horror stories with a sense of place. 

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Music by The Heartwood Institute

You can listen to the album from which this is taken here

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