“See that space between the panels? That’s what comics aficionados have named “The Gutter!” And despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics! Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.”
– Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
A ghost story about a picture that comes to life might or might not be frightening. “The Mezzotint” isn’t one. It’s a ghost story about a picture that turns into a comic strip, and as McCloud says, it draws its fear from what’s happening – or what might be happening – from one frame to the next. Comics artists refer to this skill – the manipulation of the time and space in a story via jumps between frame – as ‘storytelling’, and the protagonist in “The Mezzotint” finds himself in the uncomfortable situation of being told a story involuntarily.
Except it’s not being told just to him. The story – expressly framed as a companion to “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” (which IS about a picture coming to life, kind of) – establishes its rules and sticks to them: once the mezzotint sequence is initiated*, it changes whenever anyone looks at it – doesn’t have to be the same person.
So the story derives a lot of its effects from who is seeing the picture, and who is describing what they see when. Some gutters turn out to be a lot nastier than others. Let’s go through, frame by frame:
Frame 1: Seen by Williams, described in the narration. This is the Mezzotint’s initial state, where it appears an ordinary and indifferent piece. Nobody else sees this.
Frame 2: Seen by Bings and Williams, described by Bings and in the narration. A hint of a figure appears at the edge of the picture, and moonlight is discernable (we learn later this was not the case in F1). At this point the reader is likely to work out what’s going on.
Frame 3: Seen only by Garwood, described by Garwood at the time and then in more detail after F5 has appeared. The figure is crawling towards the house.
Frame 4: Seen by Williams, described in the narration. The figure is still crawling towards the house – it is apparent it has a cross on its back.
Frame 5: Seen by Nisbet, described by Nisbet. No figure, moon on the wane (it has taken it a while to cross the lawn), open window.
At this point the story starts to revolve around Williams and company’s attempts to work out the rules of the picture and document it. They do this with admirable presence of mind, considering (at no point do they seem to feel that they are in danger from the picture). But here is where something interesting happens. The next frame that Williams sees and describes has the figure scuttling across the lawn with a small bundle. But this is not the sixth frame.
Frame 6: Seen by Filcher, described by Filcher, but not in detail. We know only that he looks at the picture with entranced, “undisguised horror”, and that he sees a “skelinton” carrying a baby.
Frame 7: Seen by Williams and company. The figure is towards the edge of the picture, only its head and legs are visible, and the bundle it carries can be “dimly…identified” as a child.
How can I be sure that Frames 6 and 7 are different? All through the story, James is careful to document who is looking at the picture and where they are. None of Williams’ friends can see what Filcher sees, and Filcher himself leaves before they take a look. This suggests to me that the picture has reset again, and Filcher got a much clearer view of the creature than Williams ever did.
Frame 8 is the house, inert once more, and that’s the end of the strip.
The Mezzotint is a meta-story. Williams and friends are being told a ghost story – in comic strip fashion – by the creator of the Mezzotint (who died immediately after its completion – one of the nasty and quite unresolved mysteries in the tale**). So they’re aware they’re in a ghost story, and as such make efforts to game it, by photographing and monitoring events. But the story gets the better of them – its most horrid revelation remains unseen by them, and by us: the typically Jamesian comical servant acts as a smokescreen for it, and the worst of the story remains where it’s most powerful, in the gutters.
*the whys of this are extremely cryptic – the motives of the antiquarian who sells it on to Mr Williams are unclear: we can’t be sure, though we might suspect, that he knows something’s up (he denies it).
**another is how many Mezzotints there are: “impressions of which are of considerable rarity”. A mezzotint is a print, and a very physically arduous print to produce at that. Do all impressions of this one have its jack-in-the-box properties?
Next week: The Ash-Tree