“The Tractate Middoth” is a ghost story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936), first published in his More Ghost StoriesCollection of seven short stories by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1911. (1911) his second collection of ghost stories. In his preface James remarks that “the certain famous library” he had in mind for the setting of the story was Cambridge University Library.
The story is written as a third-person narrative, and concerns the disputed inheritance of Bretfield Manor.
The story begins as an elderly gentleman, John Eldred, enters a university library late one afternoon asking to borrow a particular book, the Tractate Middoth. A library assistant, Mr Garrett is sent to find the book, but returns empty-handed, saying that he has just seen what looked like an elderly clergyman in a cloak remove the book from the shelf. Impatiently, Eldred says that he will call again tomorrow, and would like to know who the elderly gentleman is.
Eldred returns the following day, and Garrett, having discovered the missing volume back on the shelf after checking later the previous evening, goes to retrieve it. But he fails to reappear, having fainted in shock after once again encountering the black-cloaked clergyman, this time smelling of mould and dust, with a head that appears to be enshrouded in cobwebs. Garrett is sent home to recover, and decides to recuperate at the seaside.
On the train to his destination, Burnstow-on-Sea, Garrett meets the elderly Mrs Simpson and her daughter, proprietors of a boarding house, who offer him lodgings. They confide in him that they are engaged in a losing a struggle with a rival heir to Bretfield Manor, formerly the estate of an eccentric clergyman named Dr Rant, who had died two decades earlier. The Tractate Middoth supposedly contains a hidden secret will that would supersede an earlier one, and Garrett, upon realising that Eldred is the rival heir, decides to help the Simpsons by preventing him from destroying the later will.
Mrs Simpson reveals that Dr Rant was her uncle, and chose to be buried in a rather peculiar way: “sitting at a table in his ordinary clothes, in a brick room that he’d had made underground in a field near his house”; and that locals claimed to have seen him around there in his old black coat.
Returning to work at the library, Garrett finds that the Tractate has been shipped to Eldred at the Rant estate. He arrives at the estate too late to stop Eldred from receiving the parcel at the railway station, but as he follows him back to the Rant mansion, he sees a dark form emerge from cobwebs at the side of the road, whereupon Eldred drops dead. An inquest finds black dust on the dead man’s face and in his mouth, but concludes that the cause of death is shock to a weak heart.
The inquest hears that Eldred had been tearing a page out of the Tractate when he died, the page containing the missing will. By its terms Mrs Simpson inherits the estate formerly possessed by Eldred. As Garrett is walking back to the station the following day he passes the site of Eldred’s death, and sees something dark lying there, a thick mass of black cobwebs, from which several large spiders run out when he pokes it with his stick.
There is no great difficulty in imagining the steps by which William Garrett, from being an assistant in a great library, attained to his present position of prospective owner of Bretfield Manor, now in the occupation of his mother-in-law, Mrs Mary Simpson.
“The Tractate Middoth” has been adapted for radio as an episode of the BBC Radio 4 M R James at Christmas series, read by Derek Jacobi and first broadcast on 25 December 2007.
Television adaptations include BBC 2’s version of the story, adapted by Mark Gatiss and first broadcast on 25 December 2013 as an episode of its A Ghost Story for Christmas series. Gatiss was evidently dissatisfied with the original story’s happy ending, and decided instead to add an element of suspense. As Garrett and Mrs Simpson’s daughter enter the hall after their marriage, an “ominous dusty shadow” is seen behind them, followed by a spider.
- M. R. James bibliographyList of the works written by M. R. James.