Dir. Mark Gatiss
When a young librarian is tasked with locating an obscure Hebrew tome for a sinister gentleman, he has a terrifying experience in the library. Soon afterwards he becomes embroiled in a search for the last will and testament of the spiritually corrupt uncle of rival siblings…
Since the early Seventies the BBC has had a tradition of broadcasting ghost stories during the festive period, predominantly adapted from the work of medieval scholar and former Provost of Kings College, Cambridge, MR James. James wrote many of his, now classic, ghost stories to be read aloud on Christmas Eve to his friends and colleagues.
The BBC series drew to an end in the late Seventies but was revived again in the Noughties with adaptations of James's Number 13, A View from a Hill and a reinterpretation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. This year’s instalment, another James adaptation, marks the directorial debut of writer/actor Mark Gatiss, best known for his work with The League of Gentlemen and for scripting Sherlock and various episodes of Dr Who.
Gatiss’s adaptation is extremely faithful to James’s story and, aside from a few slight sequential changes to the narrative for dramatic purpose, he sticks rigidly to the source material. While this story relies heavily on a series of, frankly, improbable coincidences, it’s still a compelling yarn and Gatiss's take is bolstered by a top-notch cast, all of whom deliver uniformly sterling performances. While it is arguably one of James’s slightest tales, Gatiss still manages to imbue the swift pace with an air of foreboding and menace in keeping with James’s traditionally quiet and suggestive approach to horror, and indeed that of previous BBC adaptations of his work. Gatiss builds tension and atmosphere slowly and assuredly, letting loose once or twice with unsettling and downright horrifying imagery; notably during the encounter in the library and a later scene in a train carriage, both of which are so chillingly realised because Gatiss treats us to brief glimpses of a hideous, gnarled form without ever resorting to cheap blatancy. Typical of MR James, the horror doesn’t always occur in the dead of night and here it also makes its insidious appearance in the most congenial of places; a beautifully sunlit library and a quiet, dew-soaked country lane.
The cobwebby spectre, one of James’s creepiest, is described thus by the author: “I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. He turned round and let me see his face—which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs—thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can’t tell you anything more.”
Later on, when the spectre finally catches up with Eldred, it takes on a “dark form [which] appeared to rise out of the shadow behind the tree-trunk and from it two arms enclosing a mass of blackness came before Eldred’s face and covered his head and neck.”
When Garrett returns to the scene of Eldred’s bizarre death, he comes across “Something dark that still lay there… but it hardly stirred. Looking closer, he saw that it was a thick black mass of cobwebs; and, as he stirred it gingerly with his stick, several large spiders ran out of it into the grass.” James was a confirmed arachnophobe and his use of spiders, and spidery imagery, throughout The Tractate Middoth is most unsettling. This is reiterated by Gatiss who suffuses the mise-en-scene with spidery imagery; from the arachnids glimpsed in a stained glass window and the final shot of a large, spindly spider scuttling across the floor, to the various close up shots and glimpses of web-weavers scurrying about the face and head of the ghoulish spectre; it’s an arachnid-infested nightmare. The briefly mentioned notion of a spider in human form also echoes certain passages of Ramsey Campbell’s short story The Guide, a flawless homage to James’s style and tone of storytelling.
This is a James story with a ‘happy ending’, a rare thing indeed, however Gatiss opts to end proceedings on an ambiguous note not originally present, and while The Tractate Middoth is a slip of a story, this adaptation marks a welcome return to the BBC’s spooky Christmastime traditions and a solid directorial debut from Gatiss.