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.

Continue reading “The Watcher at the Threshold, Part 5: Amazon and Aegean”

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. 

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 2: Africa”

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”.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 1: Scotland”

Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror

When I came across this book at a local bookstore, it seemed just the thing to read before visiting Scotland.

Review: Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, ed. Peter Haining, 1971, 1988.

Scottish Tales of Fantasy and Horror
Cover by Hector Garrido

Besides including some good stories, this is a nice primer on the Scottish tradition of supernatural stories. In 288 pages, in manages to pack in a fair survey on the subject from several centuries ao to 1971. (And it also has a glossary for the Scottish dialect.) It was first issued under the title Clans of Darkness. Haining includes not only stories set in Scotland but work from authors of a Scottish background. Angus Wilson’s “Foreword” notes that faerie stories are a prime element and that the borderlands between England and Scotland and the Orkney Islands contributed more tales than the more well-known Highlands.

Thomas the Rhymer” is a legendary figure in Scottish history. Not only is he credited with the first poetry we have written in English but also with the gift of prophecy. This anonymous tale has him encountering a beautiful woman who may be the Virgin Mary but her accoutrements of expensive saddle, dress, bow and arrow, and three greyhounds suggests Diana. Thomas is smitten with her and proposes marriage. But she tells him he has to be her slave first. And she changes into a hideous woman. But Thomas is faithful and goes on a quest that will include a tree of forbidden fruit and a trip to Elfland. It’s an interesting mix of Christianity, faerie legends, and an historical figure.

Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonwealth” is an excerpt from his famed book of the same title. That 17th century work was a book of faerie lore, and this excerpt tells us about the nature and deeds of the Sith or Good People. Continue reading “Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror”

“The Children of the Night”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Children of the Night”, Robert E. Howard, 1931.

Children of the Night
Cover by Stephen Fabian

The story starts with our narrator, John O’Donnel, hanging out with six other men. They discuss various historical, anthropological, and literary matters. They are all

of the same breed — that is to say, a Briton or an American of British descent. By British, I include all natural inhabitants of the British Isles.

Well, maybe not all of them. There’s that Ketrick fellow. He says he comes from the “Welsh branch of the Cetrics of Sussex”. But his eyes are “sort of amber, almost yellow, and slightly oblique”. Why, if you look at him just right, he almost looks Chinese.

Talk turns to an artifact one of them has reconstructed, a strange stone axe. Ketrick picks it up, experimentally swings it about.

And smacks O’Donnel in the head. Continue reading ““The Children of the Night””

“The Watcher by the Threshold”

It’s time for this week’s weird fiction.

Yes, that is the same John Buchan remembered these days for the espionage thrillers The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle. But he wrote enough weird fiction to make up an entire collection, and, in 1911, he wrote an introduction to Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, so he had a definite interest in that type of story.

Review: “The Watcher by the Threshold”, John Buchan, 1900.

Watcher by the T
Cover by Keith Minnion

A successful story that I wish was longer and more detailed.

It’s almost what Darrell Schweitzer calls an “old school chum story” except the narrator is not an old school chum of the afflicted Robert Ladlaw. Ladlaw is his cousin-in-law. The narrator wanted to marry Robert’s wife Sybil, whom he deeply cares for, but he acknowledges she wisely chose Robert, and he likes Robert.

The narrator’s vacation in the Scottish Highlands is interrupted by a written plea from Sibyl. There is something seriously wrong, what she won’t say, with Robert, and she would like him to visit her.

The Ladlaws live in the House of More. The narrator finds the surrounding country and its red rocks and dirt, melancholy and peat-covered hills, landscape scarred from coal and iron mining oppressive. He calls it “a sullen relic of a lost barbarism”.  It’s called the land of Manaan (which suggests “Canaan” but, as far as I know, the name is an invention of Buchan’s). There he finds a distraught Sibyl and Robert a strange dinner companion. He is twitchy, spasmodic, and fearfully clutches at Sibyl.

Robert has brought a sinisterly suggestive bust of the Emperor Justinian (the anthology notes it seems to be based on a real bust). Continue reading ““The Watcher by the Threshold””