Monday, 10 October 2011

Supernatural Buchan: Stories of Ancient Spirits, Uncanny Places and Strange Creatures by John Buchan, Leonaur Ltd.

Ostensibly, a reprint of the 1991 Peter Haining / Robert Hale edition of the ‘Best Supernatural Stories’; despite the lurid re-titling, this remains a welcome re-issue.  The fifteen tales represent Buchan’s uncanny contributions to monthly literary magazines, such as Blackwoods Magazine in the UK and Atlantic Magazine in the US.

  What swiftly hits today’s reader as lasting less well is the passé Celt slang and the cultural references of the time that, naturally enough, permeate throughout.  The stag-hunting, cigar-chomping, colonial old boy network represented may well alienate – or, at least, tire – most interested women readers these days, and, likely, several male.  Yet, equally tempering is Buchan’s healthy scepticism of Christian doctrine and a receptive take on human nature.  An antidote to more smug contemporaries, Kipling and Chesterton.

  Buchan’s sickly, part-incapacitated boyhood affords him a sensitivity to the natural world that partially explains the authenticity of landscape he delineates in his subsequent Richard Hannay cycle of novels.  The allied machismo, therefore, is something well observed rather than a description of himself.

   Consequently, in his autobiography Memory Hold the Door, Buchan confesses to ‘summers of pagan idleness’ by the Tweed during his student days, where, according to Haining, ‘he mostly fished or read, but occasionally let his sense of adventure get him into trouble.’  This included skirting the borderland of Scots country law, joining poacher gangs and such; an element of compensating danger that also found voice in those later heroic thrillers.

  So, the best entries here reveal aspects of his personal mortality on the one hand, and feral learning on the other.  ‘Basilissa,’ ‘The Watcher by the Threshold,’ ‘Tendebant Manus’ and ‘The Death Notice’ find him exploring the former theme, with ’No-man’s-land’ and the deceptively succinct ‘The Keeper of Cademuir,’ the latter.  ‘A Journey of Little Profit’ is a neat enough ‘Devil’s bargain’ tale, but an early example too bogged down with showy, geographical detail.

  An exception to these themes is the fantastically child-like and still highly readable ‘The Magic Walking Stick’; its wide-eyed, wish-fulfilling concept gloriously evoking the ‘Listener’ / ‘Lost Valley’ era of Algernon Blackwood.  Just as such writers are clear influences, so are those he’d inspire.  The metaphysical chase climaxing ‘No-man’s-Land’ and the somnambulant, night time follower of ‘The Grove of Ashtaroth’ prefigure the later, more lurid scenarios from fans Lovecraft and Robert Howard.  You can see why these tales so fired such frustrated psyches.  Watch out for the rising self-loathing – surprising and brilliant – from both the protagonists.


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