Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I've been a huge fan of The Thirty Nine Steps ever since I picked up a copy one lazy afternoon as a student and read the whole thing in one sitting. Although I was studying English literature, John Buchan's classic thriller wasn't a set text for any of my modules. If memory serves me correctly (and let's remember, I was a student at this time so much of my short-term memory underwent some serious punishment in those hazy days) I'd only heard the author's name mentioned by some of my more engaging lecturers as someone whose work they felt I'd enjoy. They weren't wrong. Buchan's short novel blew me away. Sure, there are aspects of it which have aged very badly (Buchan's anti-semitism is pretty hard to avoid) but the frantic pacing and the brilliant build-up of tension throughout the novel puts it in a league of its own. Small wonder that it is often cited as the first modern thriller and the forefather of Ian Fleming's Bond adventures. In the twelve years since I was first introduced to the dashing, square-jawed Richard Hannay, I've read The Thirty Nine Steps three or four times and it never fails to entertain me.
Skip forward to October 2011. A plumper, hairier, more sober Hereward is taking a jaunt to Inverness and finds himself, screaming toddler in arms, in Leakey's Bookshop. Those lucky enough to live in Scotland who don't know this fantastic second-hand bookshop would do well to seek it out. A converted church literally packed to the rafters with a staggering range of books, Leakey's is a book-geek's nirvana. So there I was, my daughter grizzling away on my shoulder, scanning the shelves for a bargain. When I saw this book, I must confess that I came pretty close to dropping the little one. TheBest Supernatural Stories of John Buchan... holy shit. Regular readers will know that I am a total sucker for anything remotely supernatural. I had no idea that Buchan had turned his hand to short stories of the fantastic or supernatural but there it was in front of me.
It has taken me far too long to get round to reading this book, but I'm very glad I did. The introduction gives a very detailed, if somewhat dry, account of how each of the stories came to be written. Haining provides curious readers with details of Buchan's influences and goes into some depth about Buchan's fascination with the supernatural world. Although interesting, the introduction is, at times, a little bit too academic, leeching a little bit of the fun-factor out of some of the sillier stories in the collection.
Whilst a couple of the stories are pretty uneventful affairs and will be quickly forgotten, there are more hits than misses. Journey of Little Profit is written with a tremendously broad Scottish dialect and is an evocative little tale of a lawless drover's unlucky encounter with a substantially more wicked being. The Outgoing of the Tide is a slow moving tale about witchcraft but is a great example of how the atmosphere of a story is just as important as the action. The Green Wildebeest is an African-based adventure which reminded me of Rider Haggard whilst The Grove of Ashtaroth and The Watcher by the Threshold are Lovecraftian tales of old gods and their lingering influence on the world. The Magic Walking Stick is a charming little tale about a young boy who finds himself in possession of a walking stick which enables him to travel instantaneously anywhere he desires. Clearly aimed at younger readers, this story is beautifully simplistic but also artfully crafted. Tendebant Manus is a tale of supernatural possession but Buchan sidesteps the cliché by choosing focus on character rather than cheap ghostly thrills.
One tale in particular stood out above all the others. Indeed, no-man's-land is such a brilliant story it alone makes the book worth tracking down. Fans of monsters and things that go bump in the night will be delighted with this stunning little novelette. The plot is pure pulp and all the better for it. An Oxford academic with a particular interest in Celtic history and mythology goes on holiday to the highlands of Scotland where he encounters a race of proto-humans whose continued survival has led to the myth of the brownies. Buchan's characteristic skill of cranking up the tension through the course of the story is used to marvellous effect and his descriptions of the Scottish landscape manage to capture both its beauty and its bleakness.
The Best Supernatural Stories of John Buchan is great fun and well worth scouring the internet and second-hand bookshops for a copy. Fans of Buchan's thrillers will be entertained by seeing how the writer's confident, direct writing style is well suited to other genres. Hard-core fans of horror might find some of Buchan's stories a little bit bloodless but those who stick with them will see that his supernatural tales weren't exercises in the grotesque but great examples of how tension and atmosphere can be used artfully to create stories that are both gripping and unsettling without resorting to shock tactics.
Hereward L.M. Proops