The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England

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

My multi-part look at this collection of John Buchan’s fantastic fiction continues with his stories set in England.

Off all the stories in the collection the most memorable and, I think, most original – even though Buchan gave it a Latin title – is ”Tendebant Manus(1927). This is a story with a tinge of predestination at its end and centers around World War One. The story is the reminisces at the funeral of one George Souldern recently killed in a motorcycle accident. For most of his life, George was considered to have a first-class brain, to be industrious and clever but not the sort of man who could lead others, a man of no enthusiasm, a man lacking in personality.

But George, in his later years, starkly transformed. The catalyst seems to have been the death of his brother Reggie on the Western Front. Reggie was everything George wasn’t: a natural leader (he served on staff at General HQ), a man of ordinary intellect who used it all.

Though devoted to his brother, George refused to have a memorial built to his brother whose body was never found. To George, his brother still seems to live. And, in some sense, he still seems to – in George’s mind where he continues to fight the war after his death. Reggie has become a daemon that changes George.

“Rome only sleeps … she never dies” we’re told in “The Wind in the Portico”, a 1928 story related to Richard Hannay. It’s another of Buchan’s temnos tales centering about a pagan survival on a British estate.

The story opens with a quote from Jeremiah:

the dry wind of high places . . . not to fan or cleanse, even a full wind from those places shall come unto me.

The teller of the tale is Nightingale, sort of a Lawrence of Arabia character who led Arabs during the Great War – something he has no desire to talk about. He’s a Cambridge professor and tells us that, before the war, he was traveling in Shropshire. A local man, Dubellay, has a variant of the Medicaean Codex at his house that Nightingale wants to see.

Dubellay, a “scholarly and autocractic recluse”, says Nightingale can look at the Codex at his house, but he’s not invited to stay.

Dubellay inherited the estate from his brother, and Nightingale knows, from nearby villagers, that Dubellay has spent a lot of money on the place. But, upon seeing Dubellay’s place, he sees nothing particularly special about the house and that it needs some repair.

Nightingale’s meeting with Dubellay is rather curt. He’s loaned the manuscript and told to review it in his room at a local inn. Nightingale notices Dubellay’s “queer restless eyes” and that he seems to want to say something other than what he does.

Back at the inn, a woman tells Nightingale that Dubellay has built a great church but quarreled with the local vicar. So, on the last day of December, Nightingale takes a long walk that takes him to the back part of Dubellay’s estate.

In the rays of the setting sun, Nightingale sees a strange classical temple behind the house.

Dubellay opens up to Nightingale when the latter returns the manuscript. Vauncastle, Dubellay’s estate, was famous in Roman Britain as the location of Vauni Castra. Dubellay had the place excavated. No treasure was found, but he did find some relics and an altar to Vaunus, the “tutelary deity of the vale”. He decided to build a temple around it, and he gets very offended when Nightingale mentions a Sidonius Apollinarius passage about consecrating pagan altars for Christian use.

When the two men meet again a year later, Dubellay enthusiastically greets Nightingale. It’s June, but the temple has a smell of autumn decay about it, and Dubellay wants to consecrate the altar on Midsummer’s Eve. He’s even going to make a sacrifice.

No, there’s nothing as lurid as Dubellay trying to kill Nightingale, but there are a lot of crates about labelled “For the service of Vaunus.

Things come to a fiery crescendo when the house becomes unaccountably hot one night. Nightingale, when Dubellay shows him the temple, feels a hot wind blowing out of it, and the temple has the air of a prison and a place far from humanity. It’s an impression Dubellay, “not an imaginative man”, doesn’t have.

Dubellay’s demeanor worries Nightingale, and he tells Dubellay he’s driving himself mad.

That night a scream awakens Nightingale. A hot wind is blowing through the house, the altar is on fire, and in front of it is Dubellay’s charred and naked body.

No explanation is given for the fire that consumes the house. Maybe Vaunus was angered when Dubellay decided not to go forward with the dedication.

Lovecraft liked this story describing it as an “awakening of dead Britanno-Roman horrors”. You can view this as the negative version of temnos.

From the perspective of the supernatural, “Dr. Lartius” (1919) is less than a trifle. It has no supernatural elements, but it does have a weird story that reminded me somewhat of some of the stories in Frois Froisland’s The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories. It definitely bears the mark of Buchan the spy novelist, intelligence officer, and Director of Information (i.e. propaganda) for wartime Britain. The titular doctor is a conman and supposed psychic who spies on Britain for the Germans during the war. But, of course, there’s more to it than that.

The Magic Walking Stick” (1927) is children’s story about a boy who finds a walking stick that will take him anywhere he wishes. Of course, he and his brother have lots of fun with it. And, as is the usual case in stories like this, he ends up losing it. The bit of whimsy at story’s end was a nice touch.

In modern parapsychology parlance we would call “Ho! The Merry Masons” a “stone tape” story. That’s the idea buildings can somehow record psychic impressions of those who inhabited them. Here, though, it’s not the residents of a building but its builders.

This is a club story, another tale that Edward Leithen tells. There is a gathering of members to discuss the unexpected death of another, Sir Alwyn Thomasson. Leithen passes along a theory that emotions of places can make indelible remarks on the aether. Leithen expands this to include the physical environment itself. Buchan’s Calvinism comes through here. He describes how a house is

built out of the heart of darkness. The mortar had been wet with tears and blood, and death had plied the mallets.

Rather than building medieval cathedrals out of piety, Leithen says they were built as status competitions. The masons who built them dabbled “with impunity in Hell”, promised salvation by the church because of their work. A “spirit of black malice and blood and cynical mockery” enfused their work. And that same spirit, he thinks, led to Thomasson’s death because of the men who built his home.

In the next post, I’ll conclude my review of this book with a look at two Buchan stories, one set in the Amazon, the other in the Aegean.

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