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.

Besides the changes to mountaineering, the story’s other concern is the politics of the future. The Haldane Ministry has nationalized the great landed estates, introduced conscription, and made phonetic spelling of Gaelic names mandatory. The citizens of the British Empire now have their diet and exercise regulated by the government. The geist of the new order is

reason – science – intelligence – all that things that used to be at a discount in politics . . . are now the only things that matter.

Religion seems to have been abolished as part of the “doctrineairedom”.

The only two political entities that have this geist are Japan (who has invaded China and the Americas) and the British Empire. This all started in 1911. In 1915, the Empire fought the “Triple Alliance”. (I’m assuming Buchan refers to the pre-World War One alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.) America was conquered in 1916 by the Japanese. The Japanese and British Empires made peace in 1920. The last Liberal party member in the British Empire died in 1921 and was put in a museum.

It’s an interesting bit mix of whimsey from Buchan about his hobby combined with political satire.

Space” (1911) is another unusual Buchan story and, again, science fiction. Hillier suspects it was influenced by Buchan reading Henri Bergson and Henri Poincaire. It is about the nature of reality and predates H. P. Lovecraft’s rather similar “From Beyond”. It’s yet another twice-told story, and the teller of the main events is Leithen. He’s a politician and lawyer. I’m assuming this is Edward Leithen, sort of Buchan’s alter ego, and a character that appears in several weird and non-weird works by Buchan.

Leithen relates the story of a fellow mountain climber he knew, Holland, who was also a brilliant mathematician and physicist. Holland’s developed the idea that what we perceive as space is not a void but has features that a primitive man or animal can navigate as he would a landscape because they see things modern man can’t. But Holland begins to change as he explores the idea. He does things like walking weirdly as if he’s avoiding something we can’t see. Leithen speculates that, perhaps, there are spirits and other explorers moving about the seeming void. And Leithen doesn’t think they are friendly entities.

Citing the work of a real theologian, the seventeenth century Traherne, Leithen talks of “unknown friends” in the “region of the air”. Leithen begins to think Holland’s explorations are taking him “near the Abomination of Desolation”. Of course, Holland comes to a bad end. It’s an interesting story of alternate dimensions.

Watches of the Night” is a bit of whimsey published in the 1921-3 issue of The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal. The narrator, who is going to start his ascent in the pre-dawn hours, can’t sleep and dreams of a perfect inn waiting for him at the end of a climb.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at Buchan’s weird stories with an English setting.

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