The mezzotint

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The Mezzotint (1904) by M.R. James

The Mezzotint, written by M.R. James in 1904 is one of the many ghost stories the author is famous for. This short story is typical of the ghost story in many ways that we will develop, but with an originality that almost undermines the genre.

The Mezzotint is constructed like so many ghost stories, with the apparition of a disruptive something that cannotbe explained by the rational known rules that govern the world and the mind, and this apparition takes place in a common setting, with common people, to make us feel that it could happen to anybody, including us. That it is anchored in a contemporary setting is one of the many literary achievements of M.R. James, thus allowing a more direct identification with the characters than if they werefrom the Middle-Ages as it was fashionably the case in gothic and ghost stories. Indeed, London is the backcloth and our main character is a Mr. Williams with the honorable job of presiding over a museum and being in charge of making new acquisitions to enlarge its extensive existing collection. The rarity as it is first mentioned in the text will come to him through very common ways, his usualdealer sending him his catalogue as usual, with a quick note to the effect of a particular topographical picture.
The first unexplainable thing is only a detail but it still sets the machinery to work: why would Mr. Britnell ask such an exorbitant price for such an ordinary picture? But since the dealer “knew his business and his customer” Mr. Williams asks the original picture to be sent to him. Onhis receiving it, he is greatly disappointed since “the whole thing gave the impression it was the work of an amateur” and “an indifferent mezzotint is perhaps the worst form of engraving known”. Turning it over “with a good deal of contempt”, Mr. Williams discovers an incomplete writing that doesn’t allow him to even situate the original manor of such a poor picture. Probably forgetting about itwhile he was playing golf in the after-noon (a part of the day which is completely looked over, as any conversation relating to golf, or not relating directly to the mezzotint), it is his golfing friend who picks up the engraving and gives his opinion about it, which differs from Mr. Williams’, especially concerning the presence of a figure. There are two possible interpretations: either the twomen don’t have the same tastes concerning topographical picture and Mr. Williams hasn’t looked at it carefully enough to see the figures, or the picture is different. It is of course the first interpretation which will be considered correct, since we are evolving in a realistic setting (and moreover shortly after the end of the Victorian age, the age of reason).
The picture not being quite asworthless as he thought, Mr. Williams picks up his gazetteer to try to identify the place, with no result, the only tool he possesses to help the identification being ill-adapted. The third description of the picture by another person goes unnoticed, Mr. Williams being busy at the moment his friend draws his attention to the picture. Another opinion on the same engraving, or is it another engraving?The reader has already guessed, but the climax is delayed for the sake of tension.
Finally, the lightning strikes (“foudroiement” after Nathalie Prince). We are not told directly what Mr. Williams sees, we are first confronted with his shock, with a certain difficulty to express the impossible which is so typical of the ghost story: “It was indubitable –rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutelycertain.” but the doubt is no longer possible: the picture changed, and even more bewildering, the figures has moved, as if it were a real figure, as if the picture had a life if its own. After the shock, Mr. Williams’ first reflex is to put the picture away in safe place no one can have access to, and write an account of the different stages of the picture he had witnessed. At this point, the...