The leather-bound tale he’s dusted down is MR James’ 1911 short story The Tractate Middoth, and as you watch you quickly realise you’re at the mercy of a man who is expert in the source material. From the introductory font employed at the opening, evoking the Golden Age of the BBC Christmas ghost stories in the 1970s, The Tractate Middoth feels like it belongs with alumni such as Andrew Davies’ essential adaptation of The Signalman, and David Rushkin’s The Ash Tree.
Though this is Gatiss’s directorial debut he’s no stranger to creating nightmares, having written Crooked House in 2008, the only series to make wainscoting terrifying. Even his first Doctor Who episode, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ demonstrated a reverence of Dickens’ ghost stories among the gassy goings on. In short, the spirit of MR James can rest easy.
Old crank John Eldred visits an academic library, where he enlists the help of young student Mr Garret (Sacha Dhawan) to seek out an obscure Hebrew text called ‘The Tractate Middoth’. What Garret finds is that the book not only has a history of its own, but that it summons a terrifying apparition…
This is a beautifully shot tale and, unusually for a ghost story, takes place entirely in daylight, which only serves to cement how inescapable the sense of dread is. Fat flakes of dust fall through the white varnished sunlight like snow, never seeming to settle and bringing an ethereal beauty that also heralds tremendous menace: a g-g-g-ghost!
On the few occasions we glimpse the spectre it’s just as ghastly as MR James describes. Like all the best ghost stories, The Tractate Middoth is spooky, not outright scary (although one brilliantly realised scene aboard a train may tip the balance). It’ll linger in your mind long afterwards, lurking in the uncertainty of shadowy places and the shriek of central heating stirring.
Gatiss’s observant humour pokes through but never intrudes. Roy Barraclough and Louise Jameson’s little eccentrics bring welcome releases of laughter in an atmosphere of steadily increasing fear. As Garret, Sacha Dhawan (last seen in Gatiss’s An Adventure in Space and Time) brings life and romanticism, and his innocence is a welcome hand for the viewer to hold.
So on December 25th, as the national sugar rush reaches critical and the empty sherry bottle whistles a hollow moan, turn off the Slade, dim the lights, and for half an hour enjoy a scary little Christmas.
Airs at 9.30pm on Wednesday 25 December 2013 on BBC Two.