Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 3 – The Mezzotint

October 20, 2011 | Episodes | Comments (27)

Mezzotint Image by Stephen Gray ( 3 sees us tackle ‘The Mezzotint’ by M.R. James and delve into the world of sinister collectable artwork of a kind not often featured on the Antiques Roadshow.

In this episode:

  • Terror!
  • Art!
  • Golf!
  • Alternative endings!
  • How NOT to choose a babysitter!
  • Mike gets all sentimental about his university days.
  • Will moans a lot and bellows “In your FACE Cambridge!”
Many thanks to our excellent reader Rob Douglas and to Stephen Gray of for providing the monstrous mezzotint photo above.


  • Hauntography: The Mezzotint
    Read the excellent commentary on ‘The Mezzotint’ by Tom at Freaky Trigger, including an interesting mezzotint-as-comic-strip interpretation.
  • Art in Horror Fiction
    Interesting exploration of how art has been used as a plot device in horror fiction.
  • Golf as a Metaphor in the Ghost Stories of M.R. James
    An extended essay looking at the role golf plays in various M.R. James stories, namely ‘Oh Whistle…’, ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘The Rose Garden’.
  • Topographical Drawings at the British Library
    The British Library contains a large collection of topographical drawings of the kind Mr. Williams curated.
  • Canterbury College, Oxford
    James refers to the setting as ‘Canterbury College’, which existed up until the disillusion of the monasteries in the 16th Century but not at the time this story is set.
  • Annesley Hall, Nottinghamshire
    Anningley Hall in Essex is not a real place. However there is an Annesley Hall in Nottinghamshire, built in the 13th Century and with a fairly spooky past of its own!

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  1. I’m enjoying your series very, very much. I agree with your conclusion that this story is a little too sedentary, but it does manage to linger in the imagination.

    I had a couple of thoughts: first, though the idea of photographing the mezzotint is brought up, and a single shot is taken of the picture in its least exciting state (as a lonely house with an open window, and no figures visible), at no point does the story say that any additional photos are taken. It seems likely that in the shock of Mr. Filcher’s discovery, Williams (or Nisbet) has forgotten to take any additional pictures. An embarrassing oversight, and one I’d hesitate to call attention to myself.

    Second, concerning Mr. Britnell’s unlikely recommendation: doesn’t it seem likely that the mezzotint presented a completely different appearance to Britnell? I suppose, considering James’s opinion of the Malice of Inanimate Objects, it’s also possible that the original Lot No. 978 might have been a different engraving altogether, and that a certain, er… substitution might have been made.

    Third, your alternate ending raises a modestly enjoyable tale into the realm of sheer gibbering nightmare. Congratulations! I can only hope the geniuses at Luddite Films are listening to your podcasts as well, because your new ending makes the story much more filmable. Hint, hint.

    And very last, my Oxford annotated copy suggests that James got the name “Gawdy” from an actual historical figure who met a similar fate. Well, *before* he died, anyway. Afterwards, who can tell?

  2. Mike says:

    Excellent thoughts Will – thanks! Nesbit must have been kicking himself over the photos, especially as it was his only function in the story. But don’t encourage other Will, or every episode will finish with an alternative ending…

  3. GB Steve says:

    I only just discovered this and very much enjoying the series. Ask HP Podcraft to give you an advert, I’m sure they would. Perhaps you could join up for their live show in Leeds next month.

    Two comments:
    – regarding the location of the house, I thought it could be inspired by Manningtree, in Essex. It’s the birthplace of Matthew Hopkins; and,
    – hanged! People are hanged not hung.

  4. optionfour says:

    You know, I always thought of this as one of his milder stories (though still quite creepy!) but hearing your comments about what Filcher might have seen, it’s suddenly become that much more terrifying… (o_o)))

    About the black gown with a white cross: I’m not sure if this is of any use, but it sounds a bit like the vestments worn by the Knights of the Order of St. John! That is, if they were to put said vestments on backwards (because of course that’s what every proper undead poacher wears :3)

    There are some pictures on Wikipedia ~ ok, so perhaps the cross is more silver than white, but it still looks way doom-filled & intimidating (not to mention gothically stylish):

    P.S. I’m at Oxford… and I may have once looked round the Ashmolean to see if they might have any indifferent engravings-turned-storyboards of undead vengeance. May have. (^^;) (Sadly, none found yet…)

  5. David R says:


    Really enjoying the podcasts after the recomendation of Jim Moon at Hypnogoria. I do like (if that is the right word for feeling unsettled by) your alternative ending, but unfortunately for my sleep tonight, I can think of a variation of your alternative. Given the odd provence of the picture, what if, after somehow discovering a link to the family, inverstigations suggest that this wasn’t actually the picture that was supposed to be sent, and returning home alone Williams gets the unsettling feeling of being watched as he spends an hour writing up his notes. Tired he finishes up for the night, and then realises to his horror, the skellington has returned to the picture, though this time it is in full shot, advancing forward, as if to walk out of the frame and into the real world.

  6. Hrothgir Ó Dómhnaill says:

    Gawdy seems to be one of these
    “The Gjenganger comes back from the dead because he left something undone in life, was murdered, or committed suicide. The Gjenganger commits violence against the living and can spread disease by pinching a victim, or in some traditions by biting the face. The Gjenganger also appears in Danish and Swedish lore under slightly different spellings.”

  7. Paul Ray says:

    First things first love the podcast, I have only just recently found it, wish I had found it earlier!
    Secondly have you seen the episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” called “The Cemetery”? It has hints of “The Metzotint” with a picture changing over a period of time not a total copy but I feel it must have been influenced by M.R. James! And Roddy Mcdowell is particularly sleazy, lol!

    • Will Ross says:

      I haven’t seen any of the Night Gallery series, but I hear it mentioned a lot and I should really track it down on DVD. A sleazy ROddy Mcdowell eh? Sounds worth the ticket price alone!

    • Pirate says:

      Exactly what I thought. Though I don’t see why Rod Serling could not have had exactly the same idea as MR James. I bet you could find a third person before MR James with the same idea.

  8. Mr Humphreys says:

    Call me simplistic, but I have always interpreted the white cross on the creature’s back to be the mark of a SPIDER!

  9. Richard Leigh says:

    It’s worth having a look at Doreen Maitre’s book “Literature and Possible Worlds” for her comments on this story. An interesting point she makes is that no-one sees the mezzotint actually changing: they only look at it at different times, and see that it has changed; so perhaps there are several mezzotints, and someone/something is craftily swapping them when the scholars are not looking. Improbable, but no more so than the revenge of Gawdy from beyond the grave.

  10. Derek Wright says:

    I think the ghoulish figure is wearing the uniform of the Venerable Order of St John. Look at George V’s cloak in this Wikipedia page:
    Perhaps the ghoul is an instrument of God’s wrath?
    I agree with the previous comment by “optionfour”.

  11. Richard Leigh says:

    MRJ might have got the name Gawdy from Gaudy Night, an Oxford event (from the Latin for celebration). Dorothy L. Sayers later wrote a novel called “Gaudy Night” – though too late for MRJ to have got the name from her.
    I agree that the story lacks impact – it ends with a whimper rather than a wallop, almost as if the ending had been hastily added because MRJ had lost interest. And all those crowds of socialising students do prevent the story from being frightening.

  12. Andrew Tate says:

    First off: Great podcast. Making my way through them, starting with the stories I have already read. Now moving on to the stories I had bypassed, like The Mezzotint. Reading the story, then listening to your podcast about it. Very interesting.

    Anyway, wondering whether Anningley might be based on Little Hallingbury, a village in Essex. Why?

    1. Well, the name could be one of those loose disguises James seemed to enjoy (e.g. Aldeburgh/Seaburgh) – Anningley is kind of like Hallingbury.
    2. Google Maps tells me that Little Hallingbury is just over 16 miles from Chelmsford. I presumed that the ’16 1/2 miles’ related in the guide to how far it was from the county town.
    3. Google Maps also shows me this house, which seemed to fit (though it has been changed a lot apparently):,0.174429,3a,75y,310.8h,92.03t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s8B43E0MrQSzzemrz9JvsfA!2e0
    4. Church is Norman, from this link:
    5. That link also says that the land was owned by a Godric (Gawdy?) in the domesday book.

    OK, so some of that is slightly spurious. Thoughts?

  13. Marcia says:

    First too, I love the podcast and am sorry I came along so late. I’m making up for it by binging!
    As for Mezzotint,(which is fussy–I majored in printmaking in college and it was not my favorite method), I hate to be the only one who disagrees but this is one of my favorite of James’ stories and I for one do not want the ending changed. My biggest pet peeve about the radio plays and most of the movies is that everyone seems to think they need to be tarted up with dangers or dire conclusions and all I can say is that if you want Lovecraftian endings, read Lovecraft. Part of why I like James is that his characters tend to be average people with logical minds experiencing the frightening and unusual and generally not having to either die or be driven mad by it. Scary happens, but there is hope. Every other horror writer ever always ends up killing the hero or landing him or her in an asylum. It’s tedious, and I prefer them to escape wiser and sober but mainly unscathed. James’ folks have pluck and brains–I hate that the radio plays almost always reduce them to quivering wrecks who can’t function. It’s just not what James wrote.
    Having said that, I understand people wanting them to be scarier, particularly this one. I just don’t agree.
    Part of the appeal of The Mezzotint for me is the insular and yet social atmosphere of the school, which he does so well and with such humor, so while I hear you about too many people being in on the game, I didn’t mind it.
    Oh yes, and I always assumed the garment Gawdy is wearing is the funeral pall off the coffin. Black velvet embroidered with a white cross.

  14. Marcia says:

    I’m super yakky today and apologize for carpet-bombing your podcast site but I’m LOVING the cast and listening through them like a bulldozer.
    It occurred to me that the reason the mezzotint shows the tragedy is because the bereft father made it to show him what had happened to his son. If you think about it, the infant went missing in the middle of the night so probably the father had no explanation. He then somehow poured his life-force and/or grief into creating the mezzotint in hopes of finding out what happened. Once he finished it, he died so either he ran himself out making it or the shock of seeing what had happened killed him.
    But in that way, it’s almost like an old recording. It shows itself but has no further power to harm. I do like the idea that Williams may’ve been related and that was why he was privileged to the get the story but that wouldn’t explain how Britnell knew it was unusual. Unless he saw it too.
    Anyway. Love the cast. You guys are consistently entertaining.

  15. Eric Lofgren says:

    Just wanted to chime in a say how much I enjoy the podcast. I’m a fan of James work and you guys do a great job. The one thing I’ll say about this story is that while it doesn’t have teeth, so to speak, the story is still very unnerving as it unfolds. But, yes, it certainly could have been worked into something with a very frightening ending. I wonder if Stephen King’s short story The Sun Dog was inspired by this one. It shares a similar premise, at any rate. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on it;

    Thanks for your work on this show!

  16. Graham says:

    I was reading through R. H. Malden’s collection ‘Nine Ghosts’ and spotted this passage in the opening of “The Coxswain of the Lifeboat” (1930s):

    “The Rector is a friend of mine, and as I do not wish to expose him to the attentions of the Phantasmagorical Association…”

    While the story it forms a part of has no resemblance to “The Mezzotint”, I cannot help wondering if this passage in a short story by one of M.R James’s friends was inspired by it.

  17. William Burton McCormick says:

    Thank you guys for doing this. Love your entertaining podcasts. That said, I love this story. It was one of my two or three favorites of ALL ghost stories. Obviously, you disagree but such debate is great. Keep up the fantastic work.

  18. Harry says:

    Love the idea of ‘the disillusion of the monesteries’….”God! I can’t see the point in carrying on with all this religion stuff!”

  19. Tim Neale says:

    The Mezzotint is the latest M. R. James story to be adapted and directed by Mark Gatiss for television. Again he has chosen one of M. R. James’s lesser known stories. There was a decidedly mixed reaction on the M, R. James Appreciation Society facebook page. Quite a lot of people not fans of Mark’s adaptations. I think he should be thanked because without him we would not have any on screen versions of M. R. James stories. You don’t see anyone else campaigning/cajoling to get M. R. James on screen. Admittedly The Mezzotint isn’t an absolute favourite with me, it’s okay but likes atmospheric tension. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see what Mark Gatiss has done with it. At least it will be one thing to look forward to next Christmas when it airs on BBC2.

    • Helen Williams says:

      Having watched the Mark Gatiss adaption on Christmas Eve, I came back to listen to this podcast episode again and realised that Gatiss has totally nicked your alternative ending! Did he talk to you about it at all or is it just coincidence? Definitely made it much more scary.

  20. CHris Marshall says:

    The Mezzotint is one of my favourite M R James stories but one thing I think is strange about it, and which I have never seen commented upon, is the picture of the house being a mezzotint which is a printing medium very very rarely used for depicting landscapes. Mezzotinting, which was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was prized for its ability to recreate the textures associated with fabrics particularly satins and so was used for reproducing portrait paintings. It is extremely unusual to find a view of a country seat executed in mezzotint as these were more usually done as aquatints. I am sure that MRJ was aware of this so it was a strange choice he made. Perhaps he thought the title “The Mezzotint was better than calling the story “The Aquatint”.

    Chris Marshall

  21. John says:

    The cursed painting in Night Gallery’s “The Cemetery” isn’t the only horror story that owes a debt to “The Mezzotint”. There is a scene in John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” where John Trent and Linda Styles are checking into a hotel in Hobb’s End, NH. On the wall behind them, a painting shows a couple who resemble them standing at a riverbank. Slowly, the painting begins to morph, until the two are shown as having turned into hideous inhuman creatures that have fallen to the ground and appear to decaying.

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