Anyone reading these stories in canonical order should by now have a good idea of how they tend to play out. An aged antiquary finds or hears of the existence of a peculiar ancient artefact and in the course of further investigation, prompted either by avarice or simple scholarly curiousity, unwittingly awakens some eldritch horror who torments him, often to the death, either as punishment for his greed or out of mere supernatural malice.
On first approach The Tractate Middoth seems like it’s going to follow this pattern nicely. The title obviously refers to the artefact which will cause all the trouble, and it’s nicely esoteric and sinister sounding. And on the very first line our antiquary is introduced, a Mr John Eldred, elderly and male of course and sporting a fine set of piccadilly weepers (a wonderful term whose meaning is surely apparent even if you’ve never come across it before) and indeed seeking after the titular Tractate. But he is unable to procure it for someone else has got there first, someone perhaps of sinister aspect. Has Mr Eldred already unwittingly set malevolent forces in motion? Is there a ghoul in waiting for him? However, our expectations are quickly upset. The person who has a nasty encounter with whatever supernatural bogeyman the Tracate has perhaps empowered is not Eldred but an innocent library assistant. Eldred is forced to leave the library empty-handed, and to confirm the deviation from normal form he also leaves the story for a while, and the action turns to the assistant, William Garrett.
After his nasty fright – of which more in a moment – Garrett has to take a little sabbatical in which he stumbles, with a coincidence (or is it?) that may cause us to raise an eyebrow, upon the real mystery of this tale. The mother and daughter he fortuitously crosses paths with, a Mrs and Miss Simpson, are trying to find a will left by the mother’s evil uncle, Dr John Rant, that leaves his considerable estate to her. In the absence of the document the estate has passed over to her cousin, by her account a rather mean fellow. It seems the will has been hidden in a book – and here I offer no prizes for guessing Mr John Eldred’s relation to Mrs Simpson, or why he is trying to get his hands on the Tractate. It’s the little setup with Garrett and the Simpsons which is most intriguing though, and where the true form of this story becomes apparent. It resembles less your average Jamesian tale of eldritch horrors and more an Agatha Christie mystery, with its wronged third parties and a cosy fireside chat where they put their problems to the sleuth who will set everything to rights. And crucially, as with many a good detective story there is a Macguffin. Not the will, since the specific nature of that document is rather critical to the construction of this tale, but the Tractate Middoth itself. This mysterious and eerie sounding text is utterly irrelevant to the plot, Dr Rant could have hidden the will inside a copy of The Boy’s Big Book of Hebrew Stories and things would have played out exactly the same. And in fact that’s more or less what he did – the Tractate Middoth might sound sinister but it is no Necronomicon. Middoth or middot means measurements in Hebrew, and it’s just a tract of the Talmud that deals with the measurements and customs of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. A drier, less occult text could scarcely be conceived. Have a read, it starts off pretty racy with the temple officer beating and burning the clothes of any guard asleep at their post, but it soon settles down into dedicated cubit-counting action.
As to the detective story, of course it leaves a lot to be desired, but James wasn’t really trying to become the new Conan Doyle. The mystery is set and solved within a couple of pages, and all that remains for Mr Garrett is a rather frantic race against time, for an outcome he is not even sure of – he has to get the book off Mr Eldred, but how? Fortunately despite its detective trappings this is still a ghost story, and the ghost does his work for him.
So, what of this ghost? For me the key feature of James’ stories, more than the academic attention to detail, the fondly drawn characters or the authentic settings, lies in the brief but precise moments of terror. There are rarely more than one or two per story, and they are often described in merely a line or two, but they are usually exquisitely chilling or even horrific. The shocks in this tale are not quite top five material, but effective nonetheless. The first is the appearance of the figure that causes Mr Garrett to have his little turn. He doesn’t take in the lower part of the face but the upper is “perfectly dry”, and the deep-sunk eyes are covered with cobwebs. Those cobwebby eyes are the main image you come away with and it’s wonderfully ghastly but I wonder if the first part of the description is on reflection even creepier. Why describe a face as dry? I start to think what once-human creature, dead for over twenty years, might have a face completely devoid of perspiration or errr grease, or indeed any means of producing it. And why take care to point out that he didn’t see the lower part of the face? Well it would be quite difficult to see something that wasn’t there in the first place…
The second, deadly, visitation is described in an even more circumspect fashion than the first. “Two arms enclosing a mass of blackness” envelop and smother mean Mr Eldred. Perhaps this isn’t an image to make us shiver before turning out the bedside light, not as much as the first at least, but that mass of blackness bespeaks ineffable hadean horrors. And it means that despite our subverted expectations, the aged antiquary does get his comeuppance at the end. But why, exactly? Comeuppance for what? The usual ambiguities and vagaries of intention are at play here. Dr Rant was a bad man, and Mrs Simpson said she thought he preferred her cousin, a similar meanie, although Rant told her himself he wasn’t very fond of him. And he told her he wanted her and Mr Eldred to start on equal terms in this little puzzle, yet with his knowledge of and dealings in books surely Eldred had the upper hand. Perhaps Rant feels he made things too easy for Eldred, and came back to even things out. And Eldred seemed to know who was after him, although he was less discomfited with this knowledge than the protagonists in other stories. What had or hadn’t he seen? Who were the witnesses to the will and what (if anything) happened to them? Questions abound, as always, but they merely add to the mystery. (However I was pleased when, after thinking it slightly suspicious that a train leaving around two and taking two hours might arrive as evening was drawing in, I turned back to the beginning and found the story starts “Towards the end of an autumn afternoon…”. Trivial, but it shows that you can’t blame loose ends on any woolly thinking of James.)
Finally there is a little surprise at the end, a secret kernel to the tale we don’t discover till the very last line – well, assuming you didn’t see it coming beforehand, the clues are there. Wrapped in the detective story inside a ghost story is, it turns out, a romance! A most unusual subject for James, but tackled in his usual fashion by leaving more – far more – to the imagination than is spelled out in the text.