The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 1: Scotland

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christpher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

John Buchan wrote a lot of books including The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income, histories of the First World War, an acclaimed biography of the Marquis Montrose, and numerous novels, and, of course, the Richard Hannay series. The latter’s first two installments, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, have seen numerous radio, tv, and film adaptations and, along with Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands, are the progenitors of the modern espionage novel. A lot of Buchan remains in print today.

But he also wrote a lot of weird and fantastic fiction, even a couple of pieces of science fiction, and was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1911, when he worked for a publisher putting out an edition of Poe stories, he said Poe showed

all around us the shadowy domain of the back-world, and behind our smug complacency the shrieking horror of the unknown.

That could stand in as a description for some Buchan works of the fantastic. And, writing to a friend early in his literary career, he said the short story was his “real form”.

As the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes, many of his works are tinged with elements of the fantastic. Even the spy novel Greenmantle has a bit of weirdness in it with the Companions of the Rosy Hour’s performances and a precognitive vision by Richard Hannay.

Buchan was born untitled in 1875 in Perth Scotland to a reverend of the Church of Scotland. He died in 1940 in Canada where he served as the British Empire’s Governor General twith the title Lord Tweedsmuir. That was the result of a political career he managed to have while writing all those books.

This being an Ash-Tree Press book, Kenneth Hillier’s introductionis not at all perfunctory and quite informative on Buchan’s writing and the 28 stories presented largely in chronological order of publication. He also talks about Buchan’s characteristic themes.

Given that landscape was so much a part of Buchan’s works and his own life – some of the first things he published were on fly fishing, I’m going to talk about the works based on where they are set.

I’m also going to do something unusual because even the Low Res Scan look at this collection is rather long. I’m going to split the posts up along geographical lines.

Scotland, of course, is the most common setting. Its woods Buchan called “a solemn place, canopied by Calvinist heavens”. In particular, following Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, he wrote a lot of stories set on the Scottish Borders.

A Journey of Little Profit” (1896) starts out being narrated by a drover taking cattle to the great market at Inverforth. But most of the story is the account of an old shepherd he meets, Duncan Stewart. It’s an account of Duncan’s adventure when he was 26, a young man too given to the evils of drink, cards, and women. He stopped to have a drink with an old friend and doesn’t deliver his sheep to Carnwarth, ten miles away. It’s getting late, and Duncan’s friend says he can’t get the sheep there that night.

But Duncan gives it a try and, on the way, comes across a settlement with a delipidated barn, stables, and corral. The house, though, seems finely appointed and, at first, deserted. However, its owner shows up. He’s also a Stewart and invites Duncan to spend the night.

The man has a very long-handled spoon at supper and invites Duncan to supper. And, ominously, he makes a point of noting Duncan willingly had supper with him. Yes, the other Stewart is the Devil because, as he says, “You know the proverb, ‘A’ Stewarts are sib to the Deil.”” (The Devil using a long-handled spoon at mealtime is a motif I’ve heard of before via Brian McNeill’s song “Montrose”.) However, it takes a while for Duncan to realize he’s been supping with the Devil. Before that Duncan engages the man in a conversation about the various works of theology and philosophy in the house’s library. Duncan, it seems, went to a couple of years of college with the plans of being a preacher. This humorous deal with the Devil ends with Duncan being graciously offered the choice between his 50 sheep or his soul. Duncan remarks

You’ve an ill name, and an ill trade, but you’re no a bad sort yourself, and, do you ken, I like you.

(The collection does have a glossary for the Scots dialect which Buchan used heavily in his early tales.) This story is one of Buchan’s many where evil is to be found in the countryside.

The Herd of Standlan” (1896) is one of many Buchan stories centering around the idea of temnos, a sacred place. That idea was one Buchan seems to have had from an early age and crystalized in the study of Latin and Greek literature he pursued at college. He also credited that study with teaching him of life’s frailty and the mixture of good and bad in people.

As with “A Journey of Little Profit”, this is a twice-told tale with our narrator hearing a story about Arthur Morant and the Black Lind, a pool that is “an Inferno on the brink of Paradise”. The man telling the tale is a shepherd. (Shepherds show up a lot in early Buchan stories. He himself was one as a boy.)

Morant, who the shepherd knew ten years ago, bought a sheep farm. One day he was fishing at the Black Lind and slipped in. Trying to rescue him, the shepherd broke his arm. He still managed to grip Morant, and a passerby saves both from drowning. The shepherd’s arm never really healed right, and Morant cracked his skull and passed out. But he wakes up a rich man having inherited his father’s estate. Out of gratitude Morant hires the shepherd to keep state on his English estate. But homesickness causes the shepherd to return home after only six months. The story ends on sort of a humorous note which shows Buchan’s view of people’s mixed natures when the shepherd says of Morant and his subsequent political career as a Tory:

When I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guide Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein’ better if I had just drappit him in.

Buchan, in his political career, belonged to the Scottish Unionist party.

The title of “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) comes from Psalms 76: “As streams of water in the south, our bondage, Lord, recall.” But this story not only deals with the waterways of Scotland but a peculiar man called Adam Logan, dubbed “Streams of Water”. He wanders about Scotland, never on roads but besides streams and rivers, miraculously appearing when sheep needed to be forded across. The narrator encounters him three times with Logan increasingly decrepit each time. The story is something of a paean to what Buchan might have felt to be a soon-to-be-gone Scotland since hydroelectric projects for the country were being discussed. Logan, a man convinced there’s no waterway he can’t ford, dies when he walks into the Solloway Firth.

There is another shepherd in “At the Article of Death” (1897), but there is no humor in this bleak tale, one of the most memorable in the collection. It’s an account of a lone shepherd, his wife dead and with no children and living miles from anyone. His health is failing as he tends his flock. One day he realizes death is near. While he has lived a godly life, he senses a “mysterious terror” in the home. He thinks of evil fairies as he’s powerless to move. A shadow fills the room.

 The story ends on an ambiguous note:

Only some relic of manliness, the heritage of cleanly and honest days, was with him to the uttermost. With blank thoughts, without hope or vision, with naught save an aimless resolution and a causeless bravery, he passed into the short anguish which is death.

The phrase “causeless bravery” is curious. Is the shepherd wrong in his faith? Is that shadow a last temptation or something we will all see at death or need the shepherd’s faith to see? Is the shadow a dying delusion? The title, incidentally, is a legal term (Buchan was a lawyer) referring to the point of death.

The Moor-Song aka the Rime of True Thomas” (1897) is a seeming embrace of the romance of Scotland. Simon Etterick (the name may derive from James Hogg’s pseudonym, “Ettrick Shepherd”) comes home from church one Sunday and finds a flock of noisy birds in the fields with his sheep. He starts up a conversation with the birds’ leader, the Respectable Whaup. A discussion follows on the nature and history of birds. Do they have souls? And Whaup disparages ministers who don’t know anything about the world.

He then starts to go on about the history of Simon’s family which Simon only knows about back to three generations. And, says Whaup, the family has “fallen off from the auld stock”. In fact, Whaup says the birds know far more of the world than Simon knows from his “sacred psalms”. Whaup tells him the Moor-Song is not like those hymns and he relates the adventures and battles of the past they relate.

The next day Simon tells a man the story of Whaup and is told he’s either crazy or the victim of witchcraft. But Simon, inspired by the Moor-Song, takes up wandering and meets a woman who tells him many of her sex have heard the same song. But there’s a crucial difference. Women can hear the song and lay it up in their souls and stay at home. The men must wander after hearing it.

I said the story seems an embrace of Scotland’s romance. I suspect Buchan was contemplating what seemed, especially given the violence and wanderings of Scots in the past, the mental and physical degeneration of modern Scots compared to their ancestors. But he also seems to be saying that, yes, adventure and wandering are attractive, but being “masterless” – uncommitted to family and society – is not a good way to live. The Scots men should become more like Scots women in that respect.

There’s nothing supernatural or weird in “Comedy in the Full Moon” (1898) other than the folklore surrounding Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a jovial tale of hurly-burly, misidentification, and the Sentimentalist Miss Phyliss who professes she’s “no dabbler in the watercolours of character”. On Midsummer’s Eve, six people ascend Fairy Knowe. Besides Phyliss, there’s an Earl, the politically ambitious lawyer Charles Eden, a tailor, and two shepherds. There’s no final wedding like a classic comedy, but there are hints of romance.

The Oasis in the Snow” (1899) may have supernatural elements and is another story its narrator hears. Here the teller is an old man who talks about how few appreciate the brutality of winters in Scotland. He went hunting hares one winter with his doctor friend. His blood up, the doctor didn’t want to return home when the man sensed a storm coming. It does, and they traipse through the snow eventually taking shelter in someone’s house before heading home. Retracing their path, they come across a bit of land where the snow has melted. However, it turns out to be a bog. The story is a bit ambiguous. Are we to think they were lucky to avoid a trap on their return? How did they not become mired the first time they walked that piece of ground? Is there something special about the ground accounting for their uneasiness when traversing it?

Much better and more straight forward is “No-Man’s Land” from 1899 as well. This, at around 20,000 words, is the longest short story Buchan wrote. It’s a gripping tale in the vein of Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and “The Shining Pyramid”, a story, in Buchan’s words, “of primitive survival among Scottish moorland”. I know H. P. Lovecraft read some Buchan, but I think that, if he read this one, he would have mentioned it since it’s the sort of thing he would have loved. It’s told in the form of a manuscript authored by a professor of the “ancient life of the North, of the Celts and the Northmen and the unknown Pictish tribes”. We also get plenty of references – Buchan actually footnotes several specific books and articles referring to unpunished crimes but I don’t know if he faked them or they are real. That includes one called Glimpses of the Unknown about the folklore of Brownies and accounts of them abducting children.

Our professor, an athletic outdoorsman as Buchan protagonists tend to be, has been told by a student that traces of the Picts may be in the hills of Scotland waiting to be discovered. One day he comes across a temnos (being a professor, he actually uses that word) on a hilltop in Scotland. He wonders why the Picts left so many traces in the names of places and forts and graves in the highlands but not on hills. Maybe, suggests the student, the Picts retreated to the hills.

One day the professor meets a shepherd, “sober, keenly critical, free from the bondage of superstition”, who tells him a story of the mysterious deaths of some of his sheep and lambs. Then the shepherd asks the professor if he believes in the Devil. Not satisfied with the professor’s answer, the shepherd says the people that live in southern towns have no clue about

 the God that works in thae hills and the Devil — ay, the manifold devils – that He suffers to bide there.

And, when asked by the professor if he knows where any “antiquities” can be found in nearby glens, the shepherd tells him to leave well enough alone.

And he’s not telling tall tales about the deaths of his flock or mysterious tracks and black shadows in the heather. He’s got evidence, an arrowhead.

Naturally, the professor follows up on this lead. One night, lost in the fog and nearly going over a cliff and hearing something like human speech, he sees “little and squat and dark” figure covered in skins.

Captured, he is dragged underground. The speech of his captors is unknown, but one knows Gaelic, speaks it with a “broadened, lengthened, and coarsened” tongue, and the shepherd hears about the “Gaelic oppressor”, the “Saxon stranger”, the old gods, and “unmentionable deeds in the darkness”.

He eventually escapes, terrified of the Highlands. But an academic debate on a “new theory about primitive habitations” draws him back. For me, this was the highlight of the collection.

As you would expect, Buchan had a keen interest in the history of Scotland and eventually became president of the Scottish Historical Society. “The Far Islands” (1899) shows that and his antiquarian interests. The central conceit, one that Hillier says also shows up in Buchan’s later A Prince of Captivity, is that certain families can harbor particular delusions or have the same hallucinations across the centuries. The hero, Colin Radin, is descended from a long line of Scottish kings and clan leaders in northwest Scotland. He develops, as did his ancestors, an obsession with the Far Islands with a Golden City beyond the Mist, an idea first in the head of Bran the Blessed. Colin even views the islands in waking moments including his last when, as a respected military officer, he lies dying in the desert.

Hillier agrees with Buchan biographers that there is nothing supernatural in “Fountainblue” (1901), but he claims it is representative of a major theme, most clearly articulated in his The Power-Booth, that there is always a thin line between civilization and barbarism. Our hero Maitland is a man of the world, a wealthy and powerful and successful politician – though he notes there’s not really a lot of able competition in politics. (One always wonders when Buchan gives us these types of characters if they are drawn from people Buchan knew personally.) The one thing he doesn’t have is Clara’s love since he has a romantic rival, Despencer. We learn that Maitland is respected by people, even those who don’t like him:

He’s not great enough yet to compel one to fall down and worship him, and I hate greatness in the making.

He has an “infernal arrogance” and is completely intolerant of social conventions and civilized sophistries.

Even after Maitland saves Clara’s life, he still loses to Despencer. He leaves Scotland, and it’s implied he dies on some border of the Empire, engaged in some great government project. On his death, he’s called an “iron dreamer” who thought in “aeons and cosmic cycles, and because of it could do what he pleased in life”. Except, of course, in the matter of Clara, he doesn’t get what he wants. But his love for Clara is, at the end, called “a mere accident, a survival of the domestic in an austere spirit.”

To be honest, I don’t really see much of the thin line between barbarism and civilization in this story unless Despencer is there to provide an aesthete version of the civilized man depending on the rough and honest Maitland to save not only him but Clara.

The Green Glen” is a 1912 story combining the idea of temnos, the titular Green Glen, and the idea of landscape exerting a psychic influence. The narrator first encounters the Green Glen when eleven and finds it “not terrible exactly, or threatening, but inhumanely strange”. But, returning at age 31, it’s terror he feels there.

The Green Glen, he speculates, was first a Roman built mound, then a Christian site, and later used by some monk seemingly involved with something diabolical. Buchan, whether he’s providing a real past or a convincing imitation, goes through the many references to the Glen in song, histories, literature, and ballads. He mentions a connection between the Glen and the warring clans of Home and Douglas.

The narrator’s antiquarian interest even extends to tracing the clans’ descendants, but with no luck until he encounters, coincidentally Linford, a young man from Australia. About the same time he learns of Virginia, a rich American. He thinks they are the descendants he has looked for and conceives a scheme to bring the clans together and close some sort of psychic circuit that begin with the doomed love of Maid Marjory for Douglas. Fatalities ensue. There is an amusing bit with the narrator remarking on how it’s the fashion of American girls to claim to be either half-Scottish or half-Norman. Besides recapitulating Scottish legend, Buchan may have been thinking of a psychic bond, romantically expressed, of Scottish immigrants with their home country.

Skul Skerry” (1928)is not set in Scotland but on an island in the North Atlantic at latitude 61° North. The spirit of Buchan’s idol Poe is definitely in this story, specifically Poe’s the “The Sphinx”. The character is named Nightingale, and he is, I assume, the same Nightingale that’s in “The Wind in the Portico”. He’s doing research on birds on the island. He’s alone, and the boat coming to pick him up is days away. He begins to think about the legends he’s read that allude to the island as “proxima Abysso”. Said abyss is “the blanched world of the North which was the negation of life”. And he gets even more terrified when he sees the legendary and feared Black Silkie rises from the sea. He may even have to give up science for “poetry or theosophy”. However, at the end, the Black Silkie turns out to be a dead walrus. Until that end, though, Buchan does create a sense of the terrible and unknown pressed near to the narrator.

The Strange Adventure of Mr. Andrew Hawthorn” (1932) is more about Scottish rigidity and punctilious than the country’s landscape and told with humor, verve, and a great deal of insouciance. Mr. Hawthorn, lawyer and amateur Roman scholar, is kidnapped, sold into indentured servitude in America, rises to butler there, and impresses a visiting guest from Scotland who realizes where he’s from. However, Hawthorn stubbornly refuses any aid to return to home. Finally, he sets sail for home only to be seized en route by the French. He escapes captivity in France and returns home. He gets back just in time to have his usual morning porridge which his sister has waiting since she’s never stopped having it served even though Hawthorn’s been gone all those years. Hawthorn, of course, makes his usual complaints about his breakfast.

There are two other stories set in Scotland. I reviewed “The Outgoing of the Tide” in my Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror and did an extensive post on the title story.

In Part 2, I’ll be looking at Buchan’s supernatural stories set in Africa.

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