"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, February 4, 2021

John Buchan: The hour between dog and wolf

....It was the hour, as the French say, 'between dog and wolf', when the mind is disposed to marvels. 

-- "Space" (1911)

....and I thought that I had stumbled upon one of those places where Nature seems to invite one to her secrets.

-- "Skule Skerry" (1928)

*   *   *

The Watcher by the Threshold

Edited by Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden

(First Ash-Tree Press edition 2005)

....Buchan's particular resistance to Gothic cliché and the obviously horrific, meaning that his weird fiction is difficult to place within such traditions. Rather, it is perhaps more comfortably positioned within his own wider oeuvre. Juanita Kruse's comment that Buchan's 'best fiction contains a sense of an uncanny world beneath the veneer of civilization—a world both fascinating and terrifying'—is not aimed at his weird fiction only (Kruse 1989, 7:7). Similarly, Christopher Hitchens observed, referring to Buchan's writing generally rather than his supernatural fiction specifically, that 'the occult […] provides a continual undertone of fascination, attractive and repulsive in almost equal degrees' and that generally Buchan's 'writing shows an attraction […] to the exotic and the numinous' (Hitchens 2004).

-- Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939

by James Machin (Palgrave 2018). 

*   *   *

Space (1911)

The short story "Space" is an elegant and poignant instance of the "cosmic" in weird writing. The narrator, talking at dusk with Edward Leithen "as we sat beside the pony track which gropes its way from Glenaicill up the Correi na Sidhe" reports his friend's recollections of mathematician and mountain climber Hollond.

'His point was that the constituents of Space moved according to these new mathematical figures of his. They were always changing, but the principles of their change were as fixed as the law of gravitation. Therefore, if you once grasped these principles you knew the contents of the void....

'I knew better than to chaff him, and we had stopped argument, so that there wasn't much to be said. But sometimes he would give me news about his experiences. The whole thing was perfectly clear and scientific and above-board, and nothing creepy about it. You know how I hate the washy supernatural stuff they give us nowadays. Hollond was well and fit, with an appetite like a hunter. But as he talked, sometimes—well, you know I haven't much in the way of nerves or imagination—but I used to get a little eerie. Used to feel the solid earth dissolving round me. It was the opposite of vertigo, if you understand me—a sense of airy realities crowding in on you—crowding the mind, that is, not the body....

'....You understand quite clearly that there was no suspicion of horror or fright or anything unpleasant about this world he had discovered. It was simply a series of interesting and difficult problems. All this time Hollond had been rather extra well and cheery. But when he came in I thought I noticed a different look in his eyes, something puzzled and diffident and apprehensive. '"There's a queer performance going on in the other world," he said. "It's unbelievable. I never dreamed of such a thing. I—I don't quite know how to put it, and I don't know how to explain it, but—but I am becoming aware that there are other beings—other minds—moving in Space besides mine."

After more encounters in this zone of space, fear has aged Holland significantly. Travelling to the Alps, he gets his affairs in order. He then dies while climbing. 

Leithen sums up: '....I think he hoped that those who found him might not see the look in his eyes.'

*   *   *

Fullcircle (1920)

"Fullcircle" is a delightful story of genius loci, of a supernatural atmosphere and transformation. It is similar to the 1929 P. G. Wodehouse story "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court," where pacifist poets are transformed into hunters and sporting bloods by the eponymous house.

The charming and sunny house Fullcircle transforms the Giffens from philanthropic Fabian-type do-gooders into modest modern inheritors of domesticated squirearchic values.

     'I feel warm and good and happy here,' he went on. 'I used to talk about living close to nature. Rot! I didn't know what nature meant. Now——' He broke off. 'By Jove, there's a kingfisher. That is only the second I've seen this year. They're getting uncommon with us.' 

     'With us'—I liked the phrase. He was becoming a true countryman.

     ....We moved to the room across the hall, which had once been the Giffens' workroom, the cradle of earnest committees and weighty memoranda. This was my third surprise. Baize-covered table and raw-wood shelves had disappeared. The place was now half smoking-room, half library. On the walls hung a fine collection of coloured sporting prints, and below them were ranged low Hepplewhite bookcases. The lamplight glowed on the ivory walls, and the room, like everything else in the house, was radiant. Above the mantelpiece was a stag's head—a fair eleven-pointer.

    Giffen nodded proudly towards it. 'I got that last year at Machray. My first stag.'

     One of my many failings is that I can never enter a room containing books without scanning the titles. Giffen's collection won my hearty approval. There were the very few novelists I can read myself—Miss Austen and Sir Walter and the admirable Marryat; there was a shelf full of memoirs, and a good deal of seventeenth and eighteenth century poetry; there was a set of the classics in fine editions, Bodonis and Baskervilles and such-like; there was much county history, and one or two valuable old herbals and itineraries. I was certain that two years before Giffen would have had no use for literature except some muddy Russian oddments, and I am positive that he would not have known the name of Surtees. Yet there stood the tall octavos recording the unedifying careers of Mr Jorrocks, Mr Facey Romford, and Mr Soapy Sponge.

      I was a little bewildered as I stretched my legs in a very deep armchair. Suddenly I had a strong impression of looking on at a play. My hosts seemed to be automata, moving docilely at the orders of a masterful stage-manager, and yet with no sense of bondage. And as I looked on they faded off the scene, and there was only one personality—that house so serene and secure, smiling at our modern antics, but weaving all the while an iron spell round its lovers. For a second I felt an oppression as of something to be resisted.

     But no. There was no oppression. The house was too well-bred and disdainful to seek to captivate. Only those who fell in love with it could know its mastery, for all love exacts a price. It was far more than a thing of stone and lime; it was a creed, an art, a scheme of life—older than any Carteron, older than England. Somewhere far back in time—in Rome, in Attica, or in an Ægean island—there must have been such places; but then they called them temples, and gods dwelt in them.


*   *   *

Watches of the Night (1921)

A very brief its-all-a-dream fantasy of ease, luxury, and sensual Elysium experienced in sleep by a mountain climber.

*   *   *

The Wind in the Portico (1928)

....It is not easy to describe my impressions of that place. It was unbelievably light and airy, as brilliant as an Italian colonnade in midsummer. The proportions must have been good, for the columns soared and swam, and the roof (which looked like cedar) floated as delicately as a flower on its stalk. The stone was some local limestone, which on the floor took a polish like marble. All around was a vista of sparkling water and summer woods and far blue mountains. It should have been as wholesome as the top of a hill.

     And yet I had scarcely entered before I knew that it was a prison. I am not an imaginative man, and I believe my nerves are fairly good, but I could scarcely put one foot before the other, so strong was my distaste. I felt shut off from the world, as if I were in a dungeon or on an ice-floe. And I felt, too, that though far enough from humanity, we were not alone.

     On the inner wall there were three carvings. Two were imperfect friezes sculptured in low-relief, dealing apparently with the same subject. It was a ritual procession, priests bearing branches, the ordinary dendrophori business. The faces were only half-human, and that was from no lack of skill, for the artist had been a master. The striking thing was that the branches and the hair of the hierophants were being tossed by a violent wind, and the expression of each was of a being in the last stage of endurance, shaken to the core by terror and pain.

     Between the friezes was a great roundel of a Gorgon's head. It was not a female head, such as you commonly find, but a male head, with the viperous hair sprouting from chin and lip. It had once been coloured, and fragments of a green pigment remained in the locks. It was an awful thing, the ultimate horror of fear, the last dementia of cruelty made manifest in stone. I hurriedly averted my eyes and looked at the altar.

Runagates Club member Henry Nightingale (whose war record echoes T. E. Lawrence) recounts a pre-war experience more frightening than anything he later faced in the desert.

He visits a Mr. Dubellay, an amateur classicist buried in a crumbling country estate. Nightingale is there to consult a private copy of Theocritus to further his academic work.

At the local inn, Nightingale hears this gossip:

'They do say,' she said in an awed voice, 'that he have built a great church.' She had never visited it—no one in the parish had, for Squire Dubellay did not allow intruders—but from Lyne Hill you could see it through a gap in the woods. 'He's no good Christian,' she told me, 'and him and Vicar has quarrelled this many a day. But they do say as he worships summat there.'

"The Wind in the Portico'' is an excellent instance of archeological folk horror, with Dubellay succeeding in his personal attempt to relaunch worship of an old deity from Roman Britain: Vaunus. The temple he builds onto his house respirates with hot uncanny wind. 

The irony Buchan seems to suggest about Dubellay is bitter: that if he had been a university man with a proper classical education, he would have been smart enough not to indulge in the lethal anachronism that ultimately destroyed him. 

*   *   *

Skule Skerry (1928)

Buchan's story of islands in the high north as experienced by ornithologist Anthony Hurrell, another Runagates member.

....I can never find words to describe that curious quality of light that you get up in the North. Sometimes it is like looking at the world out of deep water—Farquharson used to call it 'milky,' and one saw what he meant. Generally it is a sort of essence of light, cold and pure and distilled, as if it were reflected from snow. There is no colour in it, and it makes thin shadows. Some people find it horribly depressing—Farquharson said it reminded him of a churchyard in the early morning where all his friends were buried—but personally I found it tonic and comforting. But it made me feel very near the edge of the world.

John Ronaldson, local fisherman, hesitates about landing Anthony Hurrell on Skule Skerry.

….'Naebody gangs there,' he said gruffly.

     "'Why should they?' I asked. 'I'm only going to watch the birds.'

     "But the fact that it was never visited seemed to stick in his throat and he grumbled out something that surprised me. 'It has an ill name,' he said. But when I pressed him he admitted that there was no record of shipwreck or disaster to account for the ill name. He repeated the words 'Skule Skerry' as if they displeased him. 'Folk dinna gang near it. It has aye had an ill name. My grandfather used to say that the place wasna canny.'

     "Now your Norlander has nothing of the Celt in him, and is as different from the Hebridean as a Northumbrian from a Cornishman. They are a fine, upstanding, hard-headed race, almost pure Scandinavian in blood, but they have as little poetry in them as a Manchester radical. I should have put them down as utterly free from superstition, and, in all my many visits to the islands I have never yet come across a folk-tale—hardly even a historical legend. Yet here was John Ronaldson, with his weather-beaten face and stiff chin and shrewd blue eyes, declaring that an innocent-looking island 'wasna canny,' and showing the most remarkable disinclination to go near it.

     "Of course all this only made me keener. Besides, it was called Skule Skerry, and the name could only come from Earl Skuli; so it was linked up authentically with the oddments of information I had collected in the British Museum—the Jarla Saga and Adam of Bremen and all the rest of it.

*   *   *

The Magic Walking Stick (1927)

....Bill came back to his wet stand grievously disappointed. He did not dare to leave it in case a flight did appear, but he had lost all hope. He tried to warm his feet by moving them up and down in the squelchy turf. His gun was now under his arm, and he was fiddling idly with the handle of the stick which was still embedded in earth. He made it revolve, and as it turned he said aloud: 'I wish I was in the middle of the big flood.' 

     Then a remarkable thing happened. Bill was not conscious of any movement, but suddenly his surroundings were completely changed. He had still his gun under his left arm and the stick in his right hand, but instead of standing on wet turf he was up to the waist in water. . . . And all around him were duck—shovellers, pintail, mallard, teal, widgeon, pochard, tufted—and bigger things that might be geese—swimming or diving or just alighting from the air.

*   *   *

The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn (1932)

At first I assumed this story about Hawthorn's strange disappearance on a before-breakfast walk would be similar to Machen's droll tale "Opening the Door."  Instead, Buchan gives us the skillfully worked wire framework of a picaresque novel in half a dozen pages.

*   *   *

Ho! The Merry Masons (1933)

A personal adventure of Edward Leithen recounted for the Thursday club, a later Runagates iteration. Leithen does not use the term "stone tape," but:

'Why should it not be in the whole physical environment—stones, trees, a glen, a hillside? We do not know what queer intricate effects the human soul may have on inanimate things. A physical environment may be charged with psychical stuff as a battery is charged with electricity, and when the right conductor appears there may be the deuce to pay.'

     He stopped.

     'Go on,' said Hurrell. 'Explain yourself.'

     'I can't,' said Leithen. 'It's only a whimsy, and won't bear explanation.'

     Then Burmester showed his acumen.

     'There's a story here,' he said. 'Let's have it, Ned.'

Concussed by a horse's kick, Leithen is laid-up in a friend's house where the cause of death from Medieval times is "shortness of breath."

....The weather all day had been still and fine, but about twilight there came a brisk April shower. It stirred up all sorts of echoes in the old house. The wind sang in the chimney, and the raindrops pattered on the terrace and drifted against the window panes. To my ear there was a tune in the place, a jigging dance tune with an odd wild catch in it. Now, as you know, I am the most unmusical creature on God's earth, but I have a good memory for airs—the rudiments of them, for I get the details all wrong. You remember Summerfield, who was the great authority on old folk music and published several collections. Well, Summerfield used to play some of his discoveries to me on a flute or a penny whistle, and one took my fancy. When I asked about it he looked wise. 'That's witch music,' he said. 'I had the devil of a job to find it, and there are places in England and Wales even today where the old folk wouldn't let you even hum it. If you started it in a public house, the tap-room would empty. Heaven knows what antique devilry was at the making of it.'

     Well, it seemed to me that I was hearing Summerfield's tune somewhere in the joists and the panelling. It had a good effect on me, for it made me ashamed of my babyishness. I told myself angrily that I was behaving like a fool, and the result was that I screwed up my resolution. Once for all I would put this nonsense outside my mind. When Thistle brought me my dinner I was quite cheerful, and told him that I was feeling better. But before he tucked me up for the night I bade him leave the curtains undrawn and open the windows at the bottom, though he protested that it was early April and the night might be chilly. I also bade him leave the door ajar which opened on to the terrace. The room was in a projecting buttress of the house, and the terrace door opened at the side into an alcove which was shielded from the wind, so there was no question of draughts. I gave these orders—at least, so I told myself—not because I was any longer nervous, but because I believed that somehow the place got unbearably stuffy during the night.

     I lay for some time in a fairly comfortable mood, watching the fire which flickered in the light airs that blew from the windows, and the gently shaken curtains, and the window squares which were ebony dark before moonrise. Slowly, I must have drifted into sleep, and the first hour or two must have been peaceful. I know that from the timing of what happened later, for the moon did not rise till nearly midnight.

     When I began to dream I was conscious only of a deep unhappiness. There was no fright in it, but the bottom seemed to have dropped out of everything and left an aching emptiness. I knew where I was—with my mind, for I saw nothing with my eyes. I was in Scaip, and Scaip was a shrine of the uttermost sorrow. I felt, so acutely that it seemed like ice in my veins, the misery of life. I am a cheerful being and never in my days had I known anything like it. Wave upon wave of abysmal distress seemed to flow over me and paralyse me.

     And then a form of words began to run in my brain. I traced them afterwards—they were from one of Lord Rosebery's perorations about the Empire. 'Cemented with men's blood and tears'—a harmless platitude you will say. But, as they came to me out of the void, they were like a dreadful incantation. They sharpened my consciousness of my environment, for they were the voice of the walls that surrounded me. I knew I was in a place which had been built out of the heart of darkness. The mortar had been wet with tears and blood, and death had plied the mallets.

     Suddenly, I seemed to be looking into a gulf of unimaginable evil. I say 'unimaginable', for it bore no relation to the world I knew. It was something that had rotted in the hoary past and on which God had mercifully shut the door. It was only an impression you understand—I remember no details, only the blank, heavy cloud of horror. Things had been wrought here—in these walls and in this room—which came from the nether Pit, things aeons removed from the common trivial wickedness of mankind. The weight of them suffocated my mind and senses, and, though my soul shuddered at them, my body and will were atrophied and I could only sink—sink.

     I woke to find myself stifling. Not my mind, but my body. There was no weight on my chest, no clutch at my throat, but I simply could not breathe. Honest fear galvanised my impotence. I fumbled for the electric bell, and tried to press the button, but there was no strength in my fingers. I put my knuckles on it, but my fist seemed to have become as frail as gossamer.

     I was now in the uttermost panic. Somehow or other I rolled out of bed, and lay gasping on the floor. The moon was up, and I saw the windows as squares of light. If I could reach them I might breathe free air.

     I crawled towards an open sash—reached it—and found no comfort. Outside was the quiet moonlit night and a green hill with sheep on it. If I could clamber over the sill I knew I could breathe, but I was too weak for that. The terrible room had me in its clutches. It made a curtain of suffocation beyond which I could not penetrate, though only an inch or two separated me from freedom.

     I felt that I was dying, that in a few seconds more I should be a corpse on the floor . . . There was a thin streak of moonlight at the terrace door which Thistle had left ajar. I struggled towards that, as a drowning man struggles towards a life-belt. Of that awful moment I have no clear memory, but I must have reached the door, for when Thistle opened it he found me at the threshold.

     Yes, the bell had rung somehow, and Thistle says he skipped down at once. There cannot have been more than a few minutes between my waking and his finding me . . . They took me to the cottage hospital, for I couldn't have stayed in that house another hour. As it was, I was a sick man for most of the summer—not the concussion, which never troubled me, but an odd kind of low fever which puzzled the doctors.

*   *   *

In conclusion, a few paragraphs from the Buchan chapter of Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 by James Machin [my reading notes on which are here]:

....One work that succeeded in meeting Buchan's criteria for successful supernatural fiction while he was a reader for Lane was 'Twixt Dog and Wolf by C. F. Keary (1848–1917), submitted to Lane for consideration in 1897. Charles Francis Keary is described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a 'numismatist and writer', which gives only an indication of the polymath range of his career ("Oxford DNB Article: Keary, Charles Francis" 2004). He was, additionally, a scholar and antiquarian, a spiritualist, he worked in the Department of Coins at the British Museum, and was a reasonably successful novelist, as such described by the Academy as one whose failures were 'more interesting than the successes of most people' (Academy 1899, 689).

....The strength of the impression made on Buchan by 'Twixt Dog and Wolf is also evident in Buchan's own subsequent career as an author. As mentioned above, a trope frequently employed by Buchan in his weird fiction was that of sacred grove, or temenos. This is anticipated and explored in Keary's 'The Four Students', in which Keary makes the chilling geographical association between the site of the mass executions of the Terror and that of the hideous rites of antique pagan ritual, suggesting that the influence of the same maleficent genius loci is responsible for both. Both this theme and Keary's 'witch-tale' 'Elizabeth' clearly resonates with, and perhaps directly influenced, Buchan's own novel of seventeenth-century 'diablerie', Witch Wood (1927), arguably the template for the 1970s 'folk horror' films Blood on Satan's Claw (1970) and The Wicker Man (1973). The structural theme common to both Keary's work and Buchan's is the conflict between pre-Classical paganism and modern religion, a theme which underpins so much of Buchan's weird and other fiction that it demands to be examined in further detail.

....The structural theme common to both Keary's work and Buchan's is the conflict between pre-Classical paganism and modern religion, a theme which underpins so much of Buchan's weird and other fiction that it demands to be examined in further detail.

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4 Februay 2021

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