M.R. James “The Mezzotint”

M.R. James (1862 – 1936) was a Cambridge scholar and author who earned acclaim for his ghost stories, which abandoned Gothic tropes for contemporary settings.

Charles Keeping MR James

lithograph by Charles Keeping from a 1973 edition of James’ stories

According to Wikipedia, the classic “Jamesian” ghost story includes the following elements:

  1. a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town in France, Denmark or Sweden; or a venerable abbey or university
  2. a nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar as protagonist (often of a reserved nature)
  3. the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow unlocks, calls down the wrath, or at least attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave

One tale that follows this template closely is James’ 1904 “The Mezzotint,” which can be read in its entirety at thin-ghost.org. In this case the “antiquarian object” is a mezzotint; the amateurish print turns out to be more intriguing than was initially suggested by its artless character.

Please light a candle and read “The Mezzotint” for yourself; I don’t wish to spoil the twists and turns. But I will share one key passage, in which James reveals himself as a print connoisseur of some refinement:

“It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known.”

…One is inclined to concur, Mister James. One is certainly inclined to concur.

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