Sunday, October 1, 2017

Spooky Things #1: M.R. James "The Mezzotint"

Well it's Halloween season. And - why not?! - let me go ahead and use that time to inch my way back into the blogosphere.

I'm officially done as the movie reviewer over at GreenCine. Everything I've written for them now routes to one of those "404 Not Found!" singularities. 'Twas a nice gig whilst I had it. As time allows, I will slowly port over everything I've written for them (published and otherwise) to this site.

But never mind that. For this month - October 2017 - I will go ahead and force myself to do daily check-ins. All of those check-ins will be somehow horror/spook/ghost/ghoul/ghast/goblin/hobgoblin/witch/etc.-related. What a devil of a time we will all have, my faithful readers!

The (very lazy and poorly defined) goal will be to highlight something that gives me the creeps/willies/chilblains/etc. Some will be supernatural, some will be disappointingly mundane.

For today's entry, I will briefly mention M.R. James's "The Mezzotint" which I reread a couple nights ago. The full text of the (very short so read it why don't ya?) story can be found here.

M. R. James

James is probably my favorite author of the weird/supernatural. His shtick is to take stuffy characters - antiquarians, philologists, historians, etc. - and hold them by the the throat over a dark abyss. Depending on the outcome, they either squirm and repent or are dropped to their doom.

I discovered James via two avenues: (1) Robertson Davies lauded him in the introduction to his otherwise bleh HIGH SPIRITS (a book I picked up after reading his excellent/harrowing DEPTFORD TRILOGY about ten years ago) and (2) Jacques Tourneur's essential horror film THE CURSE OF THE DEMON (or NIGHT OF THE DEMON, depending on which version you watch), which was based on James's "Casting The Runes".

Anyway, once my mental radio was tuned to his station, I fell into an M.R. James vortex and have since read him several times a year. Where Lovecraft had previously been my horror go-to, James has solidified himself as the reigning master of chills and spooks and such.

The main edge someone like James has over someone like Lovecraft is that James still has a rigorously moral view of the universe while Lovecraft is - for all his tentacled beasts and mythos - essentially a nihilist. Honestly, a nihilistic view of the universe is (to me, at least) never anything but horrific, almost dully so. If everything is meaningless, just rolling out of bed to put on your slippers becomes a disgusting exercise in hideous, eldritch, squamous, nameless (etc.) horror beyond space and time. For true horror to exist, I feel like there has to be some sort of baseline of goodness (or, if not goodness, normalcy) that one acknowledges. Poor antisemitic, xenophobic, life-hating Lovecraft could never find a north star outside of himself to set his watch to which meant everything for him was scary.

Anyway: "The Mezzotint"... it's a good un'. Not necessarily my favorite James but I happened to reread it recently so here we are.

The best thing about it? It immediately stomps one of my least favorite horror cliches: the "it can't be!" syndrome. What I mean is: the main character, upon discovering that he has a weird painting that seems to be uncannily animate, doesn't spend a lot of time trying to find a rational explanation for the painting's anomalous behavior. And what's more, when he brings his professor friends in to take a look, none of them insist it's all poppycock or nonsense. They all immediately begin drinking in the horror that's before them and coping with its implications, rather than denying or explaining away its existence.

It's a great story and won't take you long to read. I'd love to see more horror filmmakers and writers inspired by James rather than Lovecraft or Eli Roth or whoever people are inspired by when they make things like IT FOLLOWS, etc.

Tomorrow I'll think of something else that creeps me out. Try and sleep tonight while you mull over what that might be!!!

BONUS - One of my favorite sections from "The Mezzotint":

"...tea was taken to the accompaniment of a discussion which golfing persons can imagine for themselves, but which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons.

The conclusion arrived at was that certain strokes might have been better, and that in certain emergencies neither player had experienced that amount of luck which a human being has a right to expect."

No comments:

Post a Comment