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TractateMiddothBBC2013

Sacha Dhawan as William Garrett in a screenshot from the 2013 BBC television adaptation of "The Tractate Middoth".

"The Tractate Middoth" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It was first publishe in 1911 as part of the anthology More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

In the story, a wealthy and highly unpleasant clergyman named Dr. Rant makes two wills. In the first will, he leaves everything to his nephew John Eldred. In the second will, he disinherits John Eldred and leaves everything to his niece Mary Simpson. Dr. Rant tells his niece and nephew that the second will is written inside a printed book which used to belong to him but which is no longer in his house. Although the will is written in English, it does not look as if it is. Thirty years after Dr. Rant's death, Mary Simpson has stopped looking for the hidden will. John Eldred, however, continues to search for the second will in order to destroy it. He comes to believe that the will is written in a Hebrew-language book, an 18th century edition of the Talmud called the Tractate Middoth, which is kept at a university library. Mr. Eldred has obviously had an unpleasant experience while previously trying to take the Tractate Middoth out of the library, so a young librarian named William Garrett is sent to fetch the book for him. William Garrett makes two attempts to retrieve the book. Both times he finds that he cannot take the book because an old man in a black cloak is holding it. On the second occasion, the old man turns round and shows Garrett his face. Garrett is horrified by what he sees.

"The Tractate Middoth" has been adapted to other media, most notably as the twelfth TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas.

Plot

Late one autumn afternoon at the start of the 20th century, an elderly man named John Eldred goes to a university library in an unnamed English town. As a member of the library, John Eldred is entitled to borrow books from it. He says that he has not been to the library for a long time and is not familiar with the building's layout. He also says that, since it is almost closing time, he does not want to be obliged to run up and down the library's stairs, which would not be good for his health. The doorman gets a young librarian named William Garrett to fetch the book that John Eldred wants. Garrett is handed a piece of paper which reads, "Talmud Tractate Middoth with the commentary of Nachmanides, Amsterdam, 1707 11.3.34". Garrett goes to the part of the library where the Hebrew-language books are kept. He finds that he cannot take the Tractate Middoth because a short, bald-headed old man in a black cloak, probably a clergyman, is holding it. Garrett tells John Eldred this and suggests that, since the library will soon be closing, Mr. Eldred might like to wait until the old man comes down the stairs to get the book. Eldred declines and says that he will come back the next day. Garrett goes back upstairs and sees that the Tractate Middoth is back on its shelf and the old man in the black cloak is not there.

Eldred returns the following morning, shortly after the library opens. Garrett apologizes to him for not having been able to get the Tractate Middoth the day before and goes up to fetch it immediately. When Garrett does not return after twenty minutes, Eldred asks the doorman what could have happened. Using a speaking tube, the doorman contacts the upper floor of the library. He finds out that Garrett suddenly fell ill and was taken out of the library's back entrance. The doorman asks Eldred if he would like to go upstairs and fetch the book himself. Eldred declines. He says that he would like to visit the ill Garrett and asks the doorman where he lives. Eldred also asks the doorman if he saw a man in a black cloak leave the library the previous evening. The doorman says that he did not.

The following day, Eldred goes to see Garrett. Eldred says that he is "something of a doctor" and asks Garrett what happened to him. Garrett says that he suffered a shock and fell after he saw something strange. He tries to tell Eldred what he saw but Eldred does not want to listen. He says that he has to go to catch his train.

William Garrett is visited by his friend George Earle. Earle believes that Garrett fell ill because the atmosphere in the library is not healthy. He says that there is a very bad smell in the section where the Hebrew books are kept. Garrett says that the smell is not there all the time and tells Earle what he saw. As he had done the day before, Garrett saw a short bald-headed old man in a black cloak holding the Tractate Middoth. Garrett noticed that the few strands on the man's head looked more like cobwebs than hair. Garrett tried to get the man's attention by coughing. The man turned round. Garrett saw that he had sunken eyes and that his face was covered with thick cobwebs.

Garrett is ordered to take a vacation for his health. He decides to go to Burnstow-on-Sea, a resort which he has never been to before. As he approaches the compartment he has selected on his train, he sees a bald man in a black cloak standing in front of its door. He rushes into another compartment and faints. The only other people in the compartment are an old woman named Mary Simpson and her daughter. Mrs. Simpson revives Garrett with a bottle of smelling salts and a conversation ensues. Mrs. Simpson runs a boarding house in Burnstow-on-Sea and Garrett is invited to stay there.

The friendship between William Garrett and the Simpsons continues to grow. On the third day of his stay, Garrett is invited into their private living room. During the course of the conversation, Garrett says that he works in a library. Mrs. Simpson says, "books have played me a sad turn, or rather a book has." Mrs. Simpson's daughter says that Garrett may be able to help locate a book that is important to them. She adds that she and her mother do not know the book's name and do not know what it is about. All that they know about it is that it is probably not in English.

Mrs. Simpson explains that she is the niece of Dr. Rant, a man most famous for having been buried sitting up in a specially constructed brick room in a field near his house. Dr. Rant was a clergyman, although Mrs. Simpson does not know how he became one because he was a very unpleasant person who did not like anybody. He had only one other relative, a nephew named John. Thirty years ago, very shortly before he died, Dr. Rant gave Mary Simpson the same information that he had already given John. He said that he had made a will in which he left everything to John. Since he was not really very fond of John, he made a second will in which he disinherited John and left everything to Mary Simpson. Since he was not very fond of Mary Simpson either, he made the will difficult to find. Dr. Rant explained that he wrote the will in a printed book.The book was not kept in his house but somewhere else, in a place where John could easily access it but Mary could not. The will was written in English but did not look as if it was. Dr. Rant gave Mary Simpson some extra information in the form of a piece of paper with the number 11334 written on it.

Having inherited Dr. Rant's estate, John came into possession of a catalog of his uncle's books. He knows that the secret will is written in a book listed in the catalog that is no longer in Dr. Rant's old house. He is still searching for the second will in order to destroy it. He has often been seen at second-hand bookshops and libraries. Mrs. Simpson reveals that John's full name is John Eldred. His physical description matches that of the John Eldred who visited Garrett's library.

William Garrett determines to help Mrs. Simpson come into her inheritance. He returns home in order to do so. After he leaves Burnstow-on-Sea, he realizes that he forgot to ask Mrs. Simpson for John Eldred's address.

Garrett returns to the library where he works. He searches for the book which has the catalog number 11334. Without any decimal points, the number 11334 could be interpreted several different ways and could refer to several different books in the library. His memory having become somewhat hazy as a result of his unpleasant experiences, Garrett checks several of those books. His search eventually leads him to the library's Hebrew section. He notices that book 11.3.34, the Tractate Middoth, is not on the shelf. The doorman tells Garrett that, at John Eldred's requested, the book was sent to him by train that morning. Eldred sent a letter in which he enclosed payment to cover the cost of sending the book to him and a self-addressed wrapping for it. The doorman forgot to make a note of John Eldred's address.

Realizing that John Eldred probably lives in Dr. Rant's old house and realizing that Dr. Rant probably donated the Tractate Middoth to the library shortly before his death thirty years earlier, Garrett looks at the library's donations book for the 1870s. He finds that Dr. Rant lived in Brettfield. Garrett takes a train to the nearest station to Brettfield. The book may not have been put on the first available train that morning. Garrett may arrive at the same time as the book and prevent Eldred from destroying the will.

It is early evening when Garrett arrives at the station. Members of the train station's staff confirm that John Eldred lives nearby and tell Garrett of a short cut to Eldred's house. A porter says that Eldred was at the station earlier that afternoon, asking about a parcel, which the porter shows has just arrived. At that moment, Eldred and a servant approach the station in a small horse-drawn carriage.

Garrett believes that Eldred will not open the package in front of his servant. Garrett hopes that, by taking the short cut, he will get to Eldred's house before the carriage does. The carriage, however, moves quickly. Eldred gets out of the carriage and continues his journey on foot. Garrett secretly follows him. He notices that Eldred has discarded the book's wrapping paper and string and dropped a box of matches. Eldred sits down on a tree stump and opens the book. Although he cannot burn it because he has dropped his matches, he begins to tear out a page. A black shape rises out of the shadow of the tree stump behind him. The black form completely engulfs John Eldred. Eldred's arms and legs flay about wildly for a while before he becomes still.

William Garrett cries out for help. A laborer comes in response to his call. Garrett and the laborer prop Eldred up but he is already dead. Garrett asks the laborer if he saw what happened. The man replies that he saw Eldred read his book then suddenly have a fit. He did not see anyone else attack Eldred.

An inquest is held into Eldred's death which Garrett has to attend. Since he was reading the Tractate Middoth when he died, the book has to be examined at the inquest. It is noted that the page which Eldred had started to tear out has a date on it, 20 July 1870, as well as the signatures of Dr. Rant and two other people. The local clergyman, who has studied Hebrew, is at the inquest and examines the page. He declares that the writing on the page is not Hebrew but English and that it is a will. Precisely how Dr. Rant disguised his writing to make it look like Hebrew is not explained.

Mary Simpson comes into her inheritance and William Garrett marries her daughter.

Adaptations

"The Lost Will of Dr. Rant", an episode of the American TV series Lights Out that was first shown on NBC on May 7, 1951, is an adaptation of "The Tractate Middoth". It stars a young Leslie Nielsen as Garrett, who is referred to as Bill throughout the episode. The adaptation is a largely faithful one, although the setting is changed from England in the 1900s to the United States (specifically Boston, Massachusetts and Vermont) in 1951. Instead of a priest, Dr. Rant is described as having been the owner of a private school. It is revealed that Dr. Rant disguised the text of his will by writing it in English but using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

An episode of the British TV series Mystery and Imagination based on "The Tractate Middoth" was first shown on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on February 26, 1966. The episode is now believed to be lost.

"The Tractate Middoth" was adapted as the twelfth and final TV movie to date in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas.[1] The film was first shown on British television on December 25, 2013. It was written and directed by Mark Gatiss. It stars Sacha Dhawan as William Garrett, John Castle as John Eldred, Louise Jameson as Mary Simpson and David Ryall as Dr. Rant. The adaptation is a largely faithful one, although the setting is updated from the 1900s to the 1950s. It is revealed that Dr. Rant disguised the text of his will by writing it upside-down and backwards. After she comes into her inheritance, Mary Simpson remembers that her uncle's housekeeper once told her that Dr. Rant could not be trusted after his death any more than he could be when he was alive. The film ends with the suggestion that the ghost of Dr. Rant will continue to haunt Mary Simpson, her daughter and William Garrett.

A fifteen-minute radio adaptation of "The Tractate Middoth", part of the mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories,[2] was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on December 25, 2007. It stars Joseph Millson as David Garrett (as the character is referred to in the adaptation), Joanna Tinsey as Lucy Simpson (Mary Simpson's daughter) and John Rowe as John Eldred. The program's short running time means that a heavily abridged version of the story is presented. Almost all of the action takes place in the unnamed town where Garrett's library is located, to which Lucy Simpson follows John Eldred. The episode is vague on the form that Dr. Rant's will takes, it seems possible that Dr. Rant simply hid an ordinary will inside the pages of the Tractate Middoth. In common with the 2013 television adaptation, the 2007 radio adaptation ends with the suggestion that Garrett and Miss Simpson have not seen the last of the ghost of Dr. Rant.

Footnotes

  1. The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas is made up of twelve TV movies that were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2013. Of the other eleven films in the series, two are original stories, the rest are adaptations of the short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "A Warning to the Curious", "Lost Hearts', "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Ash-tree", "A View from a Hill", "Number 13" and "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" by M.R. James and the short story "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens.
  2. Other episodes in the five-part BBC radio mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories are based on the short stories "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "Lost Hearts", "The Rose Garden" and "Number 13". Each episode is introduced by Derek Jacobi in the character of M.R. James.

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