The Watcher by the Threshold
‘No-Man’s Land’ (1899); ‘The Far Islands’ (1899); ‘The Watcher by the Threshold’ (1900); ‘The Outgoing of the Tide’ (1902); ‘Fountainblue’ (1901)
‘No-Man’s Land’ is the best of the stories that Buchan wrote to pay his way at university. It was written in 1898, when through academic and literary work he had just become financially secure at Oxford, and it appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in January 1899. It was published in book form in 1902 with five other stories under the title The Watcher by The Threshold.
The narrator is a young Oxford Fellow in Celtic Studies who during a fishing and walking holiday stumbles on a small tribe of Picts. They have survived for millennia in Galloway caves and at once thrill him with the excitement of his discovery and terrify him with their cruelty and lust to kill. He escapes, but despite the risk returns, and is again taken prisoner. He is saved by a storm and landslide, and the tale ends with an unexpected twist which leaves the reader wondering what in the story is reality and what is illusion.
Buchan himself had been on a walking and fishing tour with a friend in 1897. They had slept in a shepherd’s cottage, walked many miles over the Galloway hills, moors and bogs, camped by lochs and fished and swam. His descriptions of the countryside are already as good as they would be in his mature novels. Moreover many of the characteristics of his later writing are to be found in this novella, a better description for it than short story, that is almost twenty thousand words long and divided into eight short sections.
As Andrew Lownie points out in his edition of the Buchan short stories, one finds the importance of landscape in the plot, the idea of sacred places, the narrow divide between civilisation and savagery, the contrast between town and country and between England and Scotland, and the call of the wild. Finally there is the first sign of Buchan’s gift for narrative. The holiday gradually becomes a tale of horror and excitement that demands to be read in a single session. Prester John, written 14 years later, would be the first of his novels to read at a similar pace.
‘No-Man’s Land’ is a remarkable achievement by a young man who had only recently emerged from a period of great financial and intellectual pressure. Scholarships, prizes and literary work had now made him ‘quite wealthy for an undergraduate’. During his time at Oxford Buchan published five books, short stories, many articles and had read numerous manuscripts by other authors for his publisher. Those readers of ‘No-Man’s Land’ who have read his novels will be interested by his early development and maturity as a writer. Those who have not will want to read them, and will soon recognise how much better Buchan writes than most modern authors of thrillers. All will find ‘No-Man’s Land’ an exciting and gripping read that stands comparison with the best of Guy de Maupassant, whose stories and style Buchan admired and imitated. Nevertheless, ‘No-Man’s Land’ bears the stamp of Buchan and nobody else.
Michael Haslett, 2005
Available to read at https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1201751h.html