“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).

At Sibyl’s insistence, the narrator talks to Robert that night.  Robert has developed an obsession about Justinian even reading his legal writings and delving into the legend of

Donisarius the monk of Padua, the unholy legend of the Face of Proserpina, the tales of succubi and incubi, the Leannain Sith and the Hidden Presence.

(All inventions of Buchan it seems given that nothing came up on an Internet search. On the other hand, there could be mysteries here in which I have not been initiated.)

We learn Justinian was haunted by the Watcher by the Threshold, seemingly a demonic presence – or maybe the actual Devil – at his left side. That explains Robert’s twitchiness focusing on that side of his body. Robert sometimes senses something at his left, sometimes sees double shadows there.

In the day, he seems better though his conversation with the narrator, when they go into town, causes the narrator to think he is possessed by some older spirit possessing keen antiquarian knowledge equivalent to the Roman era, yet ignorant of some modern things.

(Spoilers ahead)

The narrator, an attorney, is called away to wrap up a legal case in London, so he gets the local minister, Oliphant, to stay with the Ladlaws.

We get a summary of Oliphant’s account of spending the night with Robert. Ladlaw argues a cunning and diabolical philosophy (understandably not detailed) of great learning and more impressive than Nietzsche and mocks Oliphant for thinking a real devil, like the Calvinists believe in, can’t walk the earth. The next morning Robert is better, but Oliphant flees him that night.

The narrator returns, very tired, to find Robert is missing, and he rouses Oliphant out of bed and the two join the ongoing search in the countryside. (One of the good things about this story is that the narrator does things out of a sense of duty and not because he has any great sympathy or joy in helping out. He’s quite clear he’s an optimistic, sunny sort not given to contemplating the occult.)

The search culminates with Robert, seemingly better because he has journeyed into a less oppressive part of the country, found. But, to the narrator, his body sees curiously doubled. One part sits passively while its double attacks Oliphant and wrestles with him and chases him into a bog. Oliphant is rescued though, invisible blows descending on his rescuers, and a strange, hot wind sweeping the land afterwards.

The story ends with Oliphant’s ideas about the Devil changed, and Robert recovered.

Part of the story’s weirdness is the uncertain and ambiguous nature of the menace we are dealing with.

It can hardly be some sort of ghost of Justinian since it seems a spirit somehow tied to the land back to Roman times, and Justinian never went to Britain. If it is a demon that is tied to the land about the House of More, a survivor from pre-Christian paganism, why does it seem to have haunted Justinian (unless Justinian was haunted by a similar but not identical entity)? If it’s really the Devil, why is his modern knowledge deficient? Is it some pagan spirit of the land which, to Christian eyes, is the Devil because pagan. Kenneth Hiller’s introduction to the anthology says Buchan was interested in the idea of temenos, a holy or unholy spot, and used it in several stories. Manaan certainly seems to be such a place.

There are a lot of devices and structures and styles that a weird tale can use to arrive at its weirdness. This story is straightforward in plot. As appropriate for a tale told by a lawyer, it is detailed but in a matter-of-fact way and not in language that calls attention to its style. It lays out a clear sequence of events leading to the confirmation of weirdness entering our world. But, rather than minutely detail the nature and origin of that weirdness and show how it explains all the facts, the narrator makes no specific claims about what the Watcher by the Threshold was.

We are left with a verdict of mischief by a party unknown.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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