The Other Passenger

Impressed by his story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, I picked up this collection by John Keir Cross.

Low Res Scan: The Other Passenger, John Kier Cross, 1944, 2017.

Cover by Henry Petrides

This collection is not entirely horror or weird stories. Many of them deal with people in the arts, particularly music, and they are often written by a narrator claiming to be untutored in the art of writing an account of their experiences. The stories often seemingly digress and move back and forth in time, but Cross always ends his stories by satisfyingly tying everything together.

The collection has a quite deliberate order of stories, and there are links between some of them, so I’ll be looking at them in order. All of these stories first appeared in this volume.

J. F. Norris’ “Introduction” to the Valancourt Books edition is useful. This was not Cross’ first book, but his previous ones were children’s books under the name Stephen MacFarlane – the man “now dead” that Cross dedicated the collection to. Cross was an influential figure. Arthur C. Clarke said Cross was the first professional writer he knew. Ramsey Campbell credits Cross’ Best Horror Stories anthology as shaping his view of the genre. After this book was published, Cross was a scriptwriter for the BBC and adapted many other author’s stories to acclaim.

I’ve already looked at “The Glass Eye”.

Petronella Pan” is a creepy story about a vain woman that, to remain the center of attention, has chemically kept her daughter in the physical (though not mental) state of an infant for 30 years via chemical means. Like many Cross stories, it’s a twice-told story, and the narrator, who doesn’t like babies and goes on a riff about how innocent seeming babies grow up to become grotesque moral or physical monsters, gets the story from his sentimental German-Scottish friend Konrad who has been judging baby contests for thirty years. There is a nice bit with the baby seemingly reading Proust in her baby carriage. The mother’s former husband was a brilliant chemist, and she learned enough of his job to make the necessary formula.  Cross wrings some horror out of Christ’s line “unless you become as children” line by Christ.

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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.

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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.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England”

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 3: Mountains

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

My multi-part look at this collection continues with Buchan’s fantastic fiction with a mountaineering connection.

Buchan took up mountain climbing in 1904, and some of his fiction is set in the milieu of climbers, and the stories were often published in specialized magazines. “The Knees of the Gods” (1907) was first published in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. As you would expect from a story written for his fellow climbers, Buchan doesn’t explain much of the terminology or geographies of the listed locations. Oddly, it’s a political satire and science fiction albeit with a vision of the future provided in a dream.

We have another twice-told story with the narrator hearing about the dream of a fellow climber, Smith. We are presented with a view of the future where railroads and electric elevators take people to the tops of several mountains. You can walk up on heated carpets to the summits of others. Scotland’s mountains don’t have railroads to their top, but they’re reserved for “tourists and artists and people out of training”. Serious climbers can still go to the untamed Himalayas.

Alcohol is a prescription only item, and only obese Germans smoke cigars.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 3: Mountains”

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 2: Africa

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

I’m continuing with my multipart look at this collection. This post is on its stories set in Africa.

In 1901, Buchan accepted a job as the private secretary to the High Commissioner for Southern Africa. It was a country he came to love and began to show up in his stories.

The Groves of Ashtaroth” (1910) tells of a man visiting an old friend in Africa. The latter has built his dream home in a beautiful location. But he doesn’t seem very happy or healthy, and a servant begs the narrator to intervene.

Why? Because the man goes out at night, almost sleep walking, to a grove on the property with an old altar. There he dances and lets out some of his blood.

The servant, a dour Scotsman (probably a Presbyterian though his faith is unspecified), compares whatever cult left the altar to one of the pagan religions that led Solomon astray. (1 Kings 11). The narrator agrees to destroy the grove and altar with the servant performing the role of Josiah from 2 Kings 23. He specifically compares it to one of the cults listed in 1 Kings 11, one of the pagan religions that led Solomon astray. 

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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”.

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“The Delicate”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Delicate”, Jeffrey Ford, 1994.

Unlike last’s week’s weird fiction, this story is pure weirdness and has no allegory I could discern.

It’s short, three pages in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. It’s so packed with weirdness and so short that there’s little use in reviewing its plot. It would compress the story little.

Definitely recommended.