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”

“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.

Flower of Scotland Volume 4

Review: Flower of Scotland Volume 4, William Meikle, 2020.

Cover by William Meikle

This is the final volume in Meikle’s Flower of Scotland chapbook series.

The Silent Dead” is one of Meikle’s Augustus Seton stories, a series I particularly like. Seton is often a troubleshooter for King James I, and this time he’s sent to investigate some unholiness around Loch Leven – which happens to be where the king’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was imprisoned.

Sandy, of “Sandy Says So”, is the imaginary playmate of Sheena, young girl stuck with an obnoxious stepmother. Said stepmother is obnoxious to not only Sheena but her husband and father-in-law. She’s adulterous too. Naturally she gets a comeuppance.

Captain’s Log” is a jokey environmental story with “spaceshit” coming out a “sub-space anomaly”.

Leisure” is another jokey story about a man turning into a book. It all shares some imagery with Meikle’s Sigils and Totems series.

Continue reading “Flower of Scotland Volume 4”

Flower of Scotland Volume 3

Low Res Scan: Flower of Scotland Volume 3, William Meikle, 2020.

Cover by William Meikle

It’s a Low Res Scan because I’ve already reviewed the following stories: “The Just One” and “The Inuit Bone”.

The Flower of Scotland chapbooks show Meikle at his most varied and into areas you wouldn’t expect if you just read his novels..

For instance, “Out with the Old” is a post-apocalypse story set in 2062. It’s a rather feudal world. No surprise there. That’s not uncommon in such stories. But what if your feudal lord is a vampire? Should you really honor your obligations to him? This one ends on a memorably grim note.

Meikle’s work generally does not have a lot of explicit sex in it. (I’m not applauding that or objecting to it. I’m just noting it.) “A Siren’s Song”, set on the island of Skye, is a definite exception. A man meets a mermaid on the beach and has sex with her. The consequences are not good though the story was not clear enough for me.

Paved with Good Intentions” is a thematic companion to “Too Many” I reviewed in the previous post. This time it’s a writer, author of Best Tales of the Apocalypse 2 no less, who goes to Hell and ends up reliving his life’s unpleasant events. There’s a nice bit about bureaucrats and accountants in Hell.

Smarter” is Meikle’s takeoff on alien abductions. The aliens in this one aren’t particularly bright.

Continue reading “Flower of Scotland Volume 3”

Flower of Scotland Volume 2

Review: Flower of Scotland Volume 2, William Meikle, 2020.

Too Many” is an amusing story about a woman receiving a unique punishment in Hell. The relevant sin is hinted by the title.

Unlike a lot of the stories in the Flower of Scotland series of chapbooks, “The Worst Sound” really is short enough to be called flash fiction. A priest gives last rites to a dying and despicable man.

Phantom Payment” is a clever ghost story whose verisimilitude springs, I suspect, from Meikle’s days working in IT. A network administrator has to figure why a business’s computers are having memory problems. One of the best stories in the collection.

The First Silkie” seems to be mostly an excerpt from the Derek Adams novel The Skin Game.

Lucidity” was one story I didn’t much like. As the title hints, it’s about lucid dreaming and is sort of a man-who-dreams-he’s-a-butterfly-or-butterfly-dreaming-it’s-a-man story.

The World of Illusion” is essentially one of the pivotal chapters in Meikle’s vampire novel Eldren: The Book of the Dark.

There’s no reason you can’t have a story of possession and with a ghost on a golf course, and that’s what you get with the interesting “Just a Par to Win”.

Bait and Switch” is an alright story of generational conflict and bonding. Hoping to get his young son’s eyes off his phone, a father takes him fishing. There’s more than one way to fish, though, and fish aren’t the only game. This monster story seems set either in Canada or Maine.

Fairy tales aren’t really an interest of mine and that’s what “Jack and the Cat’s Paw” is, but I still enjoyed it and thought it well done. It’s a tale of a drifter taking a job at a town’s mill.

I’m fond of Meikle’s stories centering on music, and that’s kind of what “Total Mental Quality” is. An obsessive hi-fi enthusiast gets a hold of an experimental bit of technology, a computer chip using both microcircuity and protein chains, from the local university. It turns out it does a lot more than just record music. It creates its own media and not just music. An amusing story of artificial intelligence and the media mashups it creates.

Flower of Scotland Volume 1

The book I actually read last September on the plane to Glasgow was Flower of Scotland; Forty Flash Fictions, but Miekle seems to have withdrawn that from the market and chopped the contents up into four of his 99 cent chapbooks, so it’s the latter I’ll be reviewing. They collect work of his from the 1990s to 2014.

Flower of Scotland Volume 1

Review: Flower of Scotland Volume 1, William Meikle, 2020.

As Meikle’s followers on Twitter know, he likes his Twitter and knows how to use it. In “Twitterspace”, we follow Dave as he learns the truth behind the Twitter handles @weegreenmen and @saucerzus. We see, via Twitter, the world descending into chaos meteorological and economic. Given the green snow, it’s possible this story is linked to Meikle’s The Invasion which I haven’t read yet. On the other hand, Meikle does like to do variations on an image or idea.

In “Supply and Demand”, a psychiatrist talks to a patient who has the notion that, starting about thirty years, staring, blank-eyed children starting being born. And now their in charge of things. This is a nice, disturbing story about generational change and moral decay.

The vacation reading of a schoolteacher “At the Beach” is disturbed by an old man who wants to talk about his life and deliver some unsolicited advice: “save up your memories … because ye never ken when ye might need them”. You might see the ending coming, but you probably won’t see all of the ending coming. This is a moving story with a new twist on an old idea.

Continue reading “Flower of Scotland Volume 1”

“Detective of Dreams”

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

Review: “Detective of Dreams”, Gene Wolfe, 1980.Dark-Forces

This story was first published in Kirby McCauley’s seminal Dark Forces anthology.

I admit I came to it expecting to be annoyed and disappointed, and I finished it annoyed.

I am not fond of Wolfe’s sometimes obliqueness and stories-within-stories plot. Nor do I subscribe to the notion that Wolfe is a writer for smart people. Such talk of any writer strikes me as reader vanity.

However, my annoyance was somewhat unfair, primed by the expectation that this would be what I call a weird story other than just a story packed with Christian symbology – though not a true allegory. After all, winning the vote to be discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group doesn’t make a story automatically weird, and it’s hardly Wolfe’s fault we came to him expecting one. Continue reading ““Detective of Dreams””