The BBC have been pretty lax with their ghost stories in the past decade or two; after a boom of televisual rediscovery in the 1960s and ’70s, we’ve only had a handful of M.R. James adaptations since 2005’s ultrabland A View from a Hill, with each one proving just a bit lousier than the last.*
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the BBC, and Mark Gatiss is the sun. BBC Two recently announced that Gatiss will be adapting the James story ‘The Tractate Middoth’ (it’s a good ’un) to be part of the channel’s Christmas programming. I have above-average hopes for this: while I think Gatiss, with his League of Gentlemen and Crooked House credentials, is well-placed for a decent and creepy but (one hopes) non-psychosexual retelling, BBC adaptations have always been problematic, even when made by self-confessed James fanatics. The creators stray too far from the original stories, attempting to make their own marks as writers and directors, ultimately going so far as neuter the stories of their only purpose for existing in the first place—to scare people. I also found Crooked House’s narrative a little bit clunky and confused, but this time Gatiss is starting off with excellent source material. And, you know, Sherlock.
Gatiss will also be conducting a documentary on James called Ghost Writer, in which he ‘will try to solve one of the great literary mysteries: how this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, created tales that continue to chill readers a century on.’ Good luck with that, Mark. I did nine months of academic research on the life and work of James and I still have no real clue, just a few theories.
(Which is also why I’m pretty annoyed no one called me about this. I mean, we’re still friends BBC, but don’t expect a birthday message from me on your Facebook this year. Same goes for you, Gatiss. But I suppose I can’t stay mad at you, because, you know, Sherlock.)
I suspect Gatiss will find, as I did, that there’s no definitive answer to that question, and that ultimately it’s less an all-consuming mystery than a mild curiosity.
Of course, if you’re at all interested in M.R. James’s stories and the man himself, my Curious Library ebook will be out in Spring 2014. I’ll be sharing some of my own flights of fancy about James with you, although I expect much of it to be damned lies (the best kind).
* I fucking love footnotes! Find out a bit more on James and the BBC’s adaptations in my Electric Sheep magazine article, ‘M.R. James’s Christmas Ghosts’.