Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 11 – The Tractate Middoth

April 3, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (32)

The Old Library at Cambridge UniversityIn this episode Mike & Will whip out their library cards and prepare to crack the spine of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ by M.R. James.

Questions addressed in this episode include: Does Mr Eldred like MC Hammer? Did Sir Jimmy Saville make a pact with the devil? Is Miss Simpson a slamming hotty or merely a comely wench? And is it even politically correct to call someone a wench in this day and age?

Show Notes:

  • The Lost Will of Dr Rant (1951) (
    This American television version of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ was part of the ‘Lights Out’ mystery series, and stars none other than a young Leslie Nielson!
  • Cambridge University Library (
    The real world location of this story was the university library at Cambridge, though the current library is no longer housed in the same building as it was in James’s time.
  • Bredfield, Suffolk (googlemaps)
    The likely real-world location of Dr Rant/Mr Eldred’s house, Bredfield in Suffolk. Note Melton station about three miles to the south east (or shorter if you go across country!).
  • E.W. Pugin (1834 – 1875) (Wikipedia)
    Information on E.W. Pugin, who may or may not be linked to this story.
  • The Real Tractate Middoth (google books)
    More information on the real book can be read in ‘A history of the Mishnaic law of Holy Things, Volume 2’, available on Google Books.
  • Squire Toby’s Will by J. Sheridan le Fanu (
    The plot of this story by M.R. James’s favourite author of ghost stories bares some resemblance to the plot of ‘The Tractate Middoth’.
  • Piccadilly Weepers and More (
    Information on Piccadilly/Dundreary Weepers and other fabulous contemporary facial hair styles can be found here.
  • Tractate Middoth Postcard & Bookmark (Ghosts & Scholars)
  • Burial of William McKenzie (
    Liverpool architect and builder William McKenzie (1794 – 1851) was supposedly buried sitting up in a pyramid-shaped tomb to trick the devil, to whom he had sold his soul in exchange for luck at cards.
  • Burial of Sir Jimmy Saville (
    We were slightly mistaken in the podcast, Sir Jimmy Saville was not buried sitting up but propped up at a 45 degree angle so he could ‘see the sea’!

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  1. Paul says:

    Hey, guys. Loving the podcast – I’m a huge M.R. James fan of long standing and really appreciate listening through your discussions.

    I’ve almost finished listening to this one but couldn’t help commenting on the whole Hebrew/English will thing. I think what James was trying to get across was that the will was written in English, but transliterated into Hebrew – in other words, the sounds of the words are made with Hebrew characters, but when these characters are read aloud it forms English words and sentences.

    • Genus Unknown says:

      Yeah, that was my impression as well. Remember what Dr. Rant said: “the will’s in English, but you won’t know that if ever you see it.”

  2. Priit says:

    Thanx for that link with the “Lights Out” episode, been looking for it for a while.

  3. Genus Unknown says:

    At the end of the episode, one of the guys (I’m afraid I don’t know which is Will and which is Mike) refers to “Casting the Runes” as “one of the big three” in the M.R. James Canon.

    Presumably one of those is “Oh, Whistle,” but what’s the third? As an American, I have no idea which are the popular James stories; in fact, I only heard of him through Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature!

    • Mike says:

      We reckoned “A Warning to the Curious”, and the other two you mention, to be the most sophisticated and illustrious of the canon. Certainly there is loads to talk about, including some good TV and film adaptations. But let us know what you think!

    • Taha Yunus says:

      Oh like hordes of British know who he is? ;>

      • Genus Unknown says:

        I don’t know, do they?

        It sounds like MRJ is considerably more well-known in the UK than in the US, anyway. It seems there are television adaptations of a good number of the stories covered so far on the podcast, which seems to indicate to me that he’s at least somewhat known outside of the “early 20th-century weird fiction” circles. Even Lovecraft doesn’t get TV adaptations starring names like Leslie Nielsen and John Hurt.

  4. A Rat In The Wall says:

    Blockbuster M.R. James needs to be a reality NOW.

    The Tractate Middoth directed by Michael Bay, starring Tom Cruise at Garret, Zoe Deschanel as Ms. Simpson, Helen Mirren as Mrs. Simpson and Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Eldred

    Not really.

    Great episode guys, I’m glad you got some recognition from the HPPodcraft guys (well, at least Chris!). Can’t wait for Casting The Runes!

    • Genus Unknown says:

      Nah, Tom Cruise is way too old to play Garret. Replace him and Zooey Deschanel with Daniel Radcliffe and Scarlett Johansson. Just because I want to see a dorky guy like Daniel Radcliffe go home with Scarlett Johansson at the end.

      • A Rat In The Wall says:

        Replace Zooey Deschanel!? But then we can’t use the Deschanel Decimal System!

        Screw it, Scarlett Johansson is better.

    • Spike says:

      BTW, Sumud, penny pinching is not something just for Jewish people to be labeled with. You apparently never heard any Scot jokes or met any americans who went through the 1940#&8232;s american depression, who would spend a grand to save a buck.

  5. Stevie says:

    What’s that spoky music that plays behind the readings? I love that music!

  6. Ernst Bitterman says:

    I read the story only after listening to the ‘cast, and as Garrett began his breakneck “looking something up in the donors’ register” up to the conclusion of the chase, I found myself picturing the whole thing as a Tintin adventure. “Quiet, Snowy, he mustn’t hear us… Crumbs! Something’s grabbed him!”

  7. So enjoying this series! (Which I’m playing catch-up on, but never mind.)

    When it comes to why Rant played the ghost after his death … I always figured it was sheer meanness. The old sod knew that whoever inherited his wealth would have a nice easy life after that, and he didn’t want either of his children to enjoy that, so he chose a way that would spread the suffering around as much as possible.

    The plan: his son would get to have the estate first, but knowing it could be taken away at any moment, would never be able to fully enjoy it. He’d have it, but finally – by book or by crook, so to speak – he’d lose it. The legacy would thus never be a blessing to him.

    At the same time, he prefers his daughter and would rather she have it in the end, but the prospect of making her uncomplicatedly happy doesn’t appeal to him. Instead, she has to go through the worry and torment of having the prospect dangled out of her reach for decades, and only finally inheriting after she’s already lost her husband.

    (The husband might be an additional motivation, actually: mean old men often resent their daughters for marrying instead of staying home and nursing them. So maybe he only wanted her to inherit after she was a widow.)

    Basically, I figure, his thinking was this: ‘He can have the estate, but he’ll never enjoy it; then she can have it, but by golly she’ll have to wait and pine for it first.’ Maximum misery all round for as long as he could manage it; he only intervened when it looked like one of his children was about to secure the estate without ever having had to do without it.

    In a weird way, it’s as if he was mostly bent on punishing his son and just callous about what it cost his daughter. If his son had been a loveable man in the first place, he could easily have sat down with his sister and a lawyer and said, ‘Look, we both know that neither will is really fair and either outcome screws one of us over, so why don’t we draw up an agreement in which I make a lovely handsome settlement on you, you agree to renounce the later will if it’s ever found, and we’ll call it even?’ He could have saved himself if he hadn’t been as mean as his father, in other words, and his father took a certain sadistic pleasure in the thought that his son would never take the opportunity, always there, to save himself. We very seldom like people who share our own faults, and the old git clearly enjoyed making his son’s faults his own doom.

    • Marcia says:

      I like most of this theory very well and even thought the same myself, that Rant wants John to have the goods but not be able to enjoy them because he’ll always be worried he will lose them, and Mary suffers to watch John live rich while she and her daughter have nothing. I do have to point out that our beloved hosts did mislead in one thing and I’ve checked it again to be sure:
      Mary and John are not Dr. Rant’s children. They’re his niece and nephew. So his motivation on not liking either very well can’t be filial, just plain mean.

    • Mark Borok says:

      I think he meant to kill whichever heir found the will first. He contrived a “race” between the nephew and niece with death as the real prize for whichever of them won. Although it doesn’t seem as if Mrs. Simpson had much of a chance.

  8. Joyce says:

    Great podcasts, guys! Keep them coming!

    I think Mr. Eldred would have been perfectly safe in his inheritance if he hadn’t meddled, but of course Dr. Rant left him enough information to ensure he *would* meddle (and meddle his way to his doom!). A bit like those Greek tragedies where the seers predict some ghastly thing, prompting evasive actions which end up leading straight to the dreaded outcome.

    It’s clear that Eldred expects some uncanniness in connection with the book. He intentionally uses the library staff as “tongs” with which to distance himself from the goings-on as much as possible. But he has seriously underestimated the subtlety of Dr. Rant, who neatly uses the shock Garret receives to put him in touch with the Simpsons, at which point Eldred’s inheritance truly is no longer safe.

    I think Eldred dies because he defaces the book. For a bibliophile like Rant, ripping a page out (from a LIBRARY book, no less!) would totally be a death-by-spiders offence.

    I’m catching up on the podcast, so maybe this is discussed in an episode at some point, but I’ve been struck by the rather large proportion of stories that feature naughty if not actually wicked men of the cloth. I’ve only read the first two volumes yet, but in addition to Dr. Rant, I can think of Canon Alberic, Bishop Friis of Viborg (who has that rather shady associate Nicolas Francken), anonymous Templars (such practical jokers with their whistles!), Abbot Thomas, and Dr. Haynes of Barchester.

  9. Joyce says:

    One more thing– could Jeremy Bentham have been an inpiration for Dr. Rant’s unconventional burial? He died in 1832 according to Wikipedia:

  10. […] Notes": the Telegraph review Gatiss' adaptation here and Ross/Taylor take on the original here. Tychy previously considered James' debt to Le Fanu […]

  11. […] you want to learn more about the original story then look no further than our own Episode 11 which examined The Tractate Middoth in […]

  12. Richard Leigh says:

    A few questions about this story.
    How can Garrett receive a letter? Because of the circumstances leading to his stay with Mrs Simpson, no-one can know that he is there.
    What is the ghost doing in the library?
    Is he trying to prevent Eldred from getting hold of the book? Why?
    Why is Eldred in such a hurry to open the book? Surely, in a few minutes more he’d be home, and could deal with the book in private?
    It seems rather far-fetched (if such a phrase has any meaning here!)to suppose that the entire plot is engineered by Rant, but what other explanation fits?
    If Miss Simpson were absent from the story, it would make no difference – unless James is inviting us to imagine the dreadful sequel for the happy couple which you mention .

  13. Marcia says:

    Garret almost certainly telegrammed the library to let them know once he’d found lodgings.
    The ghost must be trying to slow down Eldred or prevent him from getting the book through the same sheer power of wickedness that not only made him set up such a convoluted and mean game but also gave him the power to live past death to watch it all unspool.
    Eldred can’t open the book at home because there are servants there who may see him with the will and ask questions later.
    Not sure about Miss Simpson because you’re right: she really only adds a bit of texture to the story but isn’t really plot-necessary unless you figure Garrett’s motivation in helping is based on his attraction to her. Not unreasonable I think. James wasn’t a huge fan of women but I think he wasn’t against romance or others finding happiness in marriage. It’s a nice light touch and yes, if you want to imagine that Rant might still be around tainting the estate, what better way to imagine a sequel than that Garrett and Miss Simpson marry, move in and are haunted?

  14. Marcia says:

    I wish I could find it again but I remember reading a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! as a child and it had a cartoon of some man who’d been buried in an above-ground room with his hand sticking through the wall of the tomb so people could walk up and shake it. I always think of that when I read this story.

  15. Three Crowns says:

    One thing that falls flat for me is there’s no real reason for Rants’ ghost to be hassling them. Usually the ghosts are justifiably annoyed because the protagonist has transgressed or hurt the person in life. But Rants has nothing to be annoyed about. He was rich and then he died. So it’s like, his cobwebby ghost is hanging around frightening his heirs just because he’s a dick. They haven’t actually done anything. I think there to be a reason why there’s a ghost. The protagonist triggered it somehow, or the ghost is seeking justice. But this ghost doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t have any motivation other than he’s a dick and he’s bored.

  16. craig lancaster marr says:

    I hope it is ok to repost this from the comments I posted about the TV adaptation…

    I have been an MR James fan since I found one of his anthologies in my school library in my early teens – in the early 1980s – and from the BBC Christmas ghost story adaptations. I am also a librarian and cataloguer and the library setting of this story obviously holds a special interest.

    I think I can throw some light on this aspect of the Tractate Middoth and the number 11.

    The university library would not use the Dewey Decimal classification system as this is too broad and is more often found in public and school libraries. Specialist and esoteric libraries may develop their own systems of course, but in many universities the Universal Decimal System (UDC) is used. It is a system I am aware of but have never used personally, but the subject class 11 is for Metaphysics. The Tractate Middoth should be in class 26 – Jewish theology.

    UDC was developed in 1895 so would have been in use during MRJ’s lifetime.

  17. Craig Lancaster Marr says:

    To follow up the above post I have been told that MR James was cataloguing the collection at Cambridge so he may have been responsible for creating the system he mentions in Tractate or it was a variation of an existing one which assigns a subject number (11), a shelf number (3) and the exact number position of the book in question (34) – which gives us the Tractate Middoth, with the commentary of Nachmanides, Amsterdam, 1707, located at 11.3.34

  18. CP Lancaster Marr says:

    Rand being buried seated is an interesting detail. This custom was applied to bishops and stems from the burial customs of Byzantine emperors. Rand seems an unlikely clergyman – is he actually a satanist or occultist giving himself a title? I was wondering if he is a nod or a dig at the other Monty – Montague Summers who was a self-styled clergyman and an occultist who also wrote some ghost stories. Did MR James know of or ever meet Summers? Dennis Wheatley did and cut short a visit to his home as he found him unbearable.

  19. Uncle Bunkle says:

    Enjoying your podcasts. Plenty of episodes left to get through. Re: Jimmy Saville – many a true word spoken in jest eh?

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