|Things like that just don't happen anymore, do they?
|Ali Friend, "The Spell"|
Sherlock, whatever. Doctor Who, fine. As far as I'm concerned, the BBC should furnish Mark Gatiss with an indefinite sum of money and let him do whatever he likes with the British weird tale, because based on The Cicerones (2002) and now The Tractate Middoth (2013), he's good with them.
Even with limited exposure to M.R. James, I don't rank the original story among the author's best—it has a serious coincidence problem and the supernatural element is not the kind that would explain it—but Gatiss makes it a neat, shivery little detective story with an unpleasantly substantial haunting at its center and a strong protagonist in Sacha Dhawan's Garrett, who like many a young man of his genre finds himself transformed in one afternoon from a bright, jaunty student librarian ("paying his way through the university," the porter class-consciously sniffs) to a shaken convalescent prone to inopportune bouts of fainting on railway platforms, haunted by the movement of dust motes and a mildewed smell. He saw something in the stacks that should have been under earth and it keeps coming back to him in the swirl of fog around a stranger's head, the billow of smoke in a railway tunnel, dew-light glinting off a cobweb in the fields. On the macabre side, at least, the adaptation doesn't put a foot wrong. The eponymous tractate doesn't seem to be haunted so much as infected—dank-smelling dust drifts ever more densely around the shelf where it's been kept these last twenty years, puffing out into the corridors where even Garrett's supernaturally obtuse friend can notice it (and it's worse that way, because it means that whatever's happening to Garrett is real, he just can't make it stop). I don't want to say that we see just enough of the apparition, because any of it would be too much, but we don't see it conventionally—expecting a blurred or a suggestive glimpse, we get instead a full-frontal shock which lasts only a few seconds, but hides nothing (it has no reason to). The second time, it can appear in shadows and fragments. We know what's there and we don't want to see it again.
(Here is where I should mention that if you have a problem with spiders, this is not the half-hour Christmas entertainment for you. It's not that the screen is ever spilling full of them, but they are a recurring motif, both decoratively and in their own chitinous selves. This is true to James' story; I think it's more pronounced here. It's a good image for a haunting—a thickening web, sticky and entangling, in which the protagonist threshes, hoping he's not calling down something worse on himself by trying to get out—but there's metaphor and then there's all those legs.)
I'm less convinced of the non-supernatural scenes, I think mostly because they're the mechanics of explanation and coincidence and therefore they clunk more than they perturb. I approve of Gatiss' respect for the text, but next time he can either rewrite a little more or pick a story that doesn't need it. (Unless I missed it, this version elides the oddity of Dr. Rant's burial arrangements, which I noticed mainly when I read the story because they recalled John Bellairs; it would have been an extra little shiver, but its absence doesn't make a difference to the plot. There is an invented character in the backstory who underlines the nastiness of the man who kicked off this whole nightmare and some of the walk-ons like the porter and Garrett's friend have been given actual personalities rather than just informative lines. Otherwise the adaptation follows nearly scene-for-scene. The setting has been pushed forward from the Edwardian era to the late 1950's, but since the only appreciable change this makes to the story is the possibility of a protagonist of color without any perceived need for explanation, I'm cool with it.) What he does very well is establish that daylight and ordinary surroundings make no difference to Garrett's haunting, so that what might feel like an obvious bus—don't bother, we know it's a fakeout—doesn't. It's not even reassuring when it is a fakeout: it's a postponement, not an escape. Once you're in the web, there's no easy way out.
In conclusion: I would like to see Gatiss take on a stronger story, and more than once every decade; I think the results would be good. In the meantime, I will continue my efforts to see more of the original Ghost Story for Christmas (1971–78) than just The Signalman (1976), which I love. The Ash Tree (1975) stars Edward Petherbridge, so I have really no excuse. In the shorter meantime, I think I'm going to take some Tylenol and see if my husband is still up for watching Sylvester McCoy.