Monday, October 25, 2010

John Buchan's The Watcher by the Threshold

The Watcher by the Threshold is a collection of five novellas by John Buchan, originally published in 1902.

Buchan is best known today for his spy fiction but his weird fiction is both interesting and original. Although it’s similar in some ways to the work of his contemporaries such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood it has its own unique flavour. These are very subtle stories, stories in which superficially not much happens. They’re entirely concerned with the internal psychology of the characters. The supernatural hardly exists, except insofar as it exists within the minds of his characters.

In Fountainblue a man who has achieved great success in business and politics returns to Scotland. He has never had any need of other people, until he meets Clara Etheridge. He has a rival in love though. A boating misadventure brings matters to a head, and he decides to change the course of his life.

The title story is a kind of possession story. A man suddenly becomes obsessed with late Roman history, and with the emperor Justinian, but is this sudden interest a sign of some strange occult influence?

No-Man’s-Land is a lost world story, a genre that I have a bit of a weakness for. A scholar finds evidence of the ancient Pictish culture of Scotland, but the evidence takes unexpectedly concrete form.

The best of the stories, I think, is The Far Islands. A young boy growing up in Scotland has a vision of a sea route to a mysterious land beyond the western sea, a vision that continues to haunt him throughout his life. It’s a wonderfully moody and evocative story.

Buchan is an almost forgotten author who is well worth the effort of rediscovery.

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