The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean

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

My multi-part look at this John Buchan collection concludes.

Buchan took a cruise to the Aegean in 1910 and that’s the setting of “Basilissa”. This 1914 story is my least favorite in the collection. It mixes precognitive dreams with a standard damsel-in-distress romantic plot.

Every April since boyhood Vernon has had a dream where he enters a house with many rooms and senses a danger. On each repetition of the dream, the danger draws closer.

In Greece, Vernon will later rescue a beautiful woman from a local warlord.

Once again, the issue of racial heritage comes up. Vernon, you see, is not of pure English blood. He’s part Greek through his grandmother and that made him susceptible to those dreams and their terrors.

The Shut Door” (1926) may start out in the trenches of World War One, but it rapidly goes to the Himalayas, the Desert of Southern Arabia, and South America as the some men relate their adventures before the war and what they hope to do afterwards. But the story eventually settles down to relate the adventures of Lacon, an engineer, in South America. It’s a lost race tale in the vein of Buchan’s “No-Man’s Land” but involving a race of white dwarfs living in the Amazon. Lacon says they are the oldest race on Earth. (One of the other men even quips, “The old Ridger Haggard business?”)

They don’t exactly live as Roussean noble savages. They live in giant stone towers with no windows and underground. They even use poison in warfare. (“I expect they could teach the Boche something about poison gas.”)

Lacon wants to go back to get proof of his story, but the next morning a German attack kills him and half his squad. The narrator ends on a grim note about the “preposterous waste of war” and that a “door leading to amazing mysteries had now been shut and bolted”.

John Clute sees the dwarfs as sort of like Morlocks which is fair given that H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine is explicitly mentioned. While not as good as “No-Man’s Land”, I still liked this one. Buchan was to use the idea of a lost race several times including in his last novel, the posthumously published Sick Heart River aka Mountain Meadow in which Edward Leithen, like Buchan himself, dies in Canada. I thought this book a fine introduction to Buchan, and I’ve since “read” (i.e. listened to audio book versions) of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, and I hope to read more Buchan. He is an interesting mixture of muscularity and sophistication. He can be both light hearted and very grim and, while he brushes against what we would now call “cosmic horror”, he never really passes that threshold. But, on the other side of that door, he gives us compelling tales where the past is not dead and pagan horrors lurk in the wild places of the world.

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