Mar 09

Hauntography: The Mezzotint

FT + The Brown Wedge8 comments • 5,985 views

To read the story, click here; to read about our ‘hauntography’ project, click here.

“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


  1. 1
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 12 Mar 2009 #

    Yes, I think this is right — the picture “knows” it’s being watched, and changes accordingly, but it isn’t clear if it knows who it’s being watched by… if it does, then it’s interesting that it’s the manservant who gets the full reveal, given the tangled class politics of the backstory (viz poacher hanged bcz by mistake kills squire’s gamekeeper; BUT this poacher is of “older”, meaing formerly “better” family than squire…)

    “Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible…”: sez the manservant — meaning a bible illustrated by Gustav Doré

  2. 2

    (dore’s work isn’t mezzotint but is said — sez some guy on the interwebs — greatly to resemble it in feel)

  3. 3
    Tom on 12 Mar 2009 #

    Another point: obviously James wasn’t inspired by comic strips (it’s just what this reminded me of) but I wonder if he was inspired by zoetropes and recently invented moving pictures. And/or pitching photography directly against older techniques: mezzotints were apparently popular because of their great realism, particularly in the capture of light.

  4. 4
    Tom on 12 Mar 2009 #

    And I didn’t get round to asking if this story is good or scary? I think it is good, my favourite of the three so far. And I think it’s certainly effectively creepy, though not really aiming for scary in the way that some are.

  5. 5
    Pete Baran on 13 Mar 2009 #

    Its the best of the three because it manages to run a striking narrative (the mystery of the picture) with a narrative about what could be taking part in the photo. I think your comics analogy only works up to the “action between the panels” point, and not beyond. Because nearly all comics are interested in the action sequences, the graphical representation of these moments “caught in time” is what they can add to prose fiction. Whilst you are right about the gaps being what makes this creepy, its because it is being done in an unknown fashion. So we have a moody picture in which a slow narrative is taking place. The contents of that narrative is disturbing. But so is the unseen hand in how that is being displayed, as we do not understand how the photo works.

    It shows confidence as a story in it takes what works best in Canon Almeric’s Scrapbook (academic/scientific exploration of spookiness) without what bogs that story down, the strange voice of that story and the lack of suspense. Whilst this is being told after the fact it is much more suspenseful as the protagonists fate is not alluded to, and the item causing the chills is quickly seen as a curiosity rather than a mortal danger. Having the picture being sinister in itself is enough to make the story work, it does not need to encroach on the real world.

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 13 Mar 2009 #

    In all three stories so far (and i think in most of the others) there’s a sense not just that exposure and knowledge have differing degrees, but that these are interrelated — to discxover more is to be more a risjk; the sacristan’s daughter (who doesn’t know what her dad is “obsessed” with) is safer than dennistoun; mrs bunch is completely unaware of the “psychic portion” of the sacrificed children, and represents a comfiness-in-ignorance that stephen in a sense envies (he has had knowledge thrust on him)

    i think what james plays with very well, at his best, is the tension between reader’s-desire-to-know and reader’s-awareness-that-knowledge-is-peril: both the previous stories have very strong scenes, but bodged control of suspense (“lost hearts” actually attempts an extremely elaborate multi-layered narrative unfold, something i think he gets better at, even as the vivid content of the dtories somewhat fades)

    there’s also a curious class dynamic going on which is quite hard to pin down: as if mrj is very strongly are that the comfort and ease of the don’s class (which he belongs to), pleasant and valued as it is, is built over a crust of criminal violence and terror (and the threat of class retribution)

  7. 7
    DV on 16 Mar 2009 #

    I first came across this when it was being read out on BBC’s “Spine Chillers” – kind of like a Jackanory for grown-ups, always with M.R. James like stories. I still think of it as one of the creepiest stories ever.

  8. 8
    Paul I on 21 Mar 2009 #

    The story falls apart from me at the end — the “comical servant” rather spoils the tension at the end — the success of the story in the early sections is in its *lack* of exposition, and the servant’s explanation gives us too much information. But a lovely concept, even if the execution isn’t quite perfect, and I love the excited exclamation: “Is it really? My goodness! he must have got in…”

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