THE DEEP ONES: "The Watcher by the Threshold" by John Buchan
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"The Watcher by the Threshold" by John Buchan
Discussion begins on October 10, 2018.
First published in The Watcher by the Threshold and Other Tales (1902).
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The Best Supernatural Stories of John Buchan
Scottish Ghost Stories
The Strange Adventures of Mr. Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories
Such a great title!
This will be a first reading for me, though I've read other Buchan including The 39 Steps (and viewed the Hitchcock adaptation multiple times).
The title seems to be a riff on "The Guardian of the Threshold," a phrase coined by Bulwer-Lytton in Zanoni to describe an entity encountered in the course of mystical initiation. This trope was then taken up in various forms by H.P. Blavatsky and other Theosophists, from whom it was probably received by Buchan, although it is likely enough that he read Zanoni. August Derleth wrote a novel based on some of HPL's notes called The Lurker at the Threshold.
(The principal instance of the trope in Thelemic occultism is in the holy book Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente, IV:33-36: "I trembled at Thy coming, O my God, for Thy messenger was more terrible than the Death-star. On the threshold stood the fulminant figure of Evil, the Horror of emptiness, with his ghastly eyes like poisonous wells. He stood, and the chamber was corrupt; the air stank. He was an old and gnarled fish more hideous than the shells of Abaddon. He enveloped me with his demon tentacles; yea, the eight fears took hold upon me. But I was anointed with the right sweet oil of the Magister; I slipped from the embrace as a stone from the sling of a boy of the woodlands.")
I was vaguely aware of the Derleth novel and its HPL provenance, but wholly unconscious of the Bulwer-Lytton or other influences. Curious now in Buchan's biography, and what's known about his interests in any of these areas. Are supernatural stories simply an interesting genre for him as an author, or (perhaps like Conan Doyle) was he sincere in his examination of supernatural phenomena?
Apropos of Bulwer-Lytton, check out this "first science fiction convention" in Victorian London:
My Roman history is almost non-existant, and I realised at some point I was confusing Justinian with Julian the Apostate (simply because I'd read a novel about the latter and knew nothing of Justinian).
I found the section Suppression of other religions and philosophies of the Wikipedia entry for Justinian to be useful context.
>4 elenchus: was he sincere in his examination of supernatural phenomena?
A bit on this aspect of Buchan's biography, in particular his recurrent interest in the temenos, is discussed at some length in an Introduction by Kenneth Hillier, here, along with a comment or two on his Calvinism and interest in pagan traditions.
Reading this right now, on my Kobo, via 50 Halloween Stories You Have To Read Before You Die. I know I know, but it was only a buck. =(
ETA: A mere 27pgs on Kobo, it did not end the way I expected nor wished, dislike cowards without compassion, the mention of red/crimson/blood was noted 11 or 12 times throughout the story to the point of annoyance, where did the library go, weapons out of reach was wise but why no doctors (would they lock him up? was that the wife's fear?), are the elderberry bushes and heather indicative of something or just typical Scottish scenery description, etc. This was my first time reading the story, my first story by Buchan. Great intro, abrupt ending, unsatisfied. Conveys the discomfort felt by the visitor; knocking over the lamp, the fright of the horse nearly causing a fatal accident that he might have witnessed, insomnia, critical of smells/views of landscape, annoyed at missing his 10 days of hunting, responded to the initial pleading of his cousin but could not follow it through. Bah.
So, I read this a few days ago, and I liked it. I thought it was especially effective in retaining an ambivalence about supernatural explanations. The ending reinforced this effect with its lack of explanation or even denouement.
The traditional phenomenon here is that of the "evil genius," i.e. a personal pseudo-tutelary spirit that works ill. In the occultist doctrines I've received, the evil genius is generally encountered before the good. Some mystics will be frightened back from the "threshold" of greater illumination by this encounter. Others may mistake the "dweller on the threshold" for the inhabitant of the adytum (i.e. the "good genius," the divine augoeides or proper tutelary spirit), and enter into pathological obsession by taking it for a guide. The worst outcome would be the one exhibited by Ladlaw--he remains wrestling with the Watcher on the threshold itself. This literally liminal position is reflected in the text's ambiguity.
I liked this a lot, too, though my reading was much more ambiguous. It felt right for how it was done -- from the allusions to landscape and Roman history, to the avoidance of any standard climax or resolution -- but I could only guess there was a structural or other reason for why the story seemed so balanced.
The allegory or parallel process supplied in >9 paradoxosalpha: provides a solid reason that sits well with my impression. It also expands upon the significance of the Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente quote provided in >3 paradoxosalpha:: the "right sweet oil of the Magister" can be understood as just that guidance Ladlaw is missing, leaving him in such torment and danger.
If the tale were merely one of possession, the story would seem to be unsatisfying in a way that didn't tally with my experience. (Perhaps that accounts for >8 frahealee: 's dissatisfaction.)
After this, I'm interested in reading other Buchan supernatural stories.
>8 frahealee: are the elderberry bushes and heather indicative of something or just typical Scottish scenery description
I think typical of Scottish landscape, to be sure, especially the heather, and elderberry is apparently a common hedge. But elderberries --though poisonous if eaten raw--traditionally are believed to be medicinal. So I find there is more than atmospherics here.
I was not really in the mood for weird fiction when I started reading this on the train, but, unlike the case with frahealee, it sort of warmed on me with time.
When the narrator was called away I expected we'd get a final paragraph about whatever ugly fate befell Ladlaw in his absence: I think the open ending we actually got was better, leaving narrator and reader alike to speculate on the nature of his affliction.
Is there a significance to Ladlaw's name BTW? The second syllable certainly sounds suggestive next to all the talk about law and Justinian.
Also unlike frahealee, I liked the narrator's being torn between relief at the excuse for running away and distaste at his own cowardice. It makes him less sympathetic than a more heroic narrator might have been, but also more human and believable, and the horror seem more genuinely horrifying. (Unlike, I gather, many readers, I have no particular need to like the protagonist to like the story.)
I was slightly disappointed to find that, judging by the WP article, there's no particular mystery regarding the status of the apocrisiarii.
>11 AndreasJ: Is there a significance to Ladlaw's name BTW?
I wondered too, especially after reading >9 paradoxosalpha:. A superficial review of internet results indicate it's a fairly uncommon variant of Laidlaw, that name more than once linked to Ludlow (meaning "hill by the rapids") but skepticism was raised more than once regarding this etymology.
I found myself mis-prounouncing it "laid low" in my head, which worked well enough.
When the narrator was called away I expected we'd get a final paragraph about whatever ugly fate befell Ladlaw in his absence
I anticipated that ending too. Like you, that I was wrong sat better with me than if I'd been right.
There might have been some transference involved between research and story. Looking into the plague that halted Justinian's attempt to broaden his reach and regain some lost territory, made me dislike the importance that was placed on the bust in the home, ordered after the connected experience was uncovered in a desperate attempt to make sense of what was happening to him. Any guy who could revere a ruler who taxed dying farmers on not only their own land but on that of their dead neighbours, in order to fill the coffers to fuel his continued need for war and domination, loses my respect on both counts. I understand that these types of people exist but that doesn't mean I want to be forced to sympathize with them as a reader of fiction.
The part I liked best was the picture above the bed of the shadow. Just a prop, piece of scenery perhaps, but it tied a few loose ends together for me. The overdose of suffering in all three characters (not counting household staff) clearly worn out at every level, senses wrung out, intellect insufficient, the escape to the bedroom after the long talk was not far enough away to escape the 'heebiejeebies'. He needed to exit the house, the region, the mindset. I get that it is an intensely human response, but likely the female in me could only brace with Sybil. I might be old fashioned, preferring that women give birth/life so men should step up to ensure their protection. Bugs me that the brunt of the deterioration is swallowed whole by the wife, and that her cousin only came to visit because he once 'loved' her, thus had a soft spot for her. Ghastly behavior to experience that thoroughly unsettling collection of events, see how dismal the wear and tear was, and then race for the hills. Yep, opinion stands firm. I want to smash the bust, soothe the horse, make tea and scones for Sybil and yell "and your mother smells of elderberries!" after the cart's departure. If the story wanted a response, it sure got one.
I'm used to reads in this genre where I really don't sympathize with any of the characters. Certainly Ladlaw was not at all sympathetic, although he was certainly pathetic in the old sense of the word. (No, I'm not a fan of Justinian at all!)
I didn't find the narrator to be a very admirable person, although I did like his self-characterizations:
You may call it silly, but I have no nerves and am little susceptible to vague sentiment. ... I am aggressively healthy and wholly Philistine.Like Andreas, I found his fallibility and un-heroic nature made him easier to relate to.
>13 frahealee: "and your mother smells of elderberries!
Ha. That infamous scene flashed to me, too, despite the tone being out of step with this story.
I suggest that all of your sympathies and empathies were harnessed to good effect. Your post begins as though you experienced them as interfering with the story, but ends almost conceding it might have contributed. I wouldn't argue that Buchan was consciously employing each element of what you describe, but I do think he knew what he was doing. Your "old fashioned" sensibilities are shared by a lot of readers. (Including me, I freely admit.)
You will all have to forgive my naivety but I have zero experience with mano-a-mano book clubs or online discussion groups, which is why I'm forcing myself to post, to see what emerges, splat! Thoughts and feelings are usually kept to my own spiral/swirl/spin, without any need to explain or personify, as when I used to travel, it never dawned on me to ask anyone to accompany me. If I'd been somewhere before, it was exempt from future visits. This is the first time I've been given material and a due date, albeit self-prescribed. Forgive me if I lead with a punch, then collect my thoughts ... that would be my Italian side blasting out of the gate, later tempered by my demure British blood. Lifelong arm-wrestling match.
The same with literature/reading. I rarely backtrack unless it is an imperative path (like Wuthering Heights, etc.) and I have never read something because I've been forced to (since high school), so references that arise as I read even a short story, in any genre, amuse me. The overlap in this was significant, since in the past ten months I've tackled; Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, The Lady of the Lake (all first timers, all for my own sense of accomplishment) ... which popped to mind during this 'absorption'. I also like the odd assorted bits; Roman bust, the sacrifice of Isaac, the remote sparse household, Theodora, etc.
Another one that appeared out of the mist was Hemingway's 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place', which is likely an odd side-effect, but I found it strangely suitable and unifying.
I also prefer place over plot or people. Bad habit, que sera. The setting is critical to my enjoyment and although bleak, it didn't bother me because I am used to Gothic ruins and moors and prefer a bit of variety to my own Canadian landscape (trees trees and more trees, which I adore, and tons of space which I completely take for granted, the population density ratio is ridiculously low and I love that too). The setting was good, the story was good, the souls/stars were frustrating, but this was also an experience I had with Alice Munro short stories. Not taking to some of the characters did not stop me from reading everything she wrote. I like to work my way through an author's progression as early/latter works collide, so Buchan is not set aside, so much as in alliance with M.R. James where I need more than just one to get a taste for him, it took a dozen.
I liked two things about this story.
First, I liked the narrator visiting the Ladlaws and searching for Robert out of a grudging -- but still present -- sense of duty.
Second, the ambivalent nature of the Watcher is striking. Clearly, it's a supernatural entity and not a delusion.
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.
Regarding your old-fashioned sensibilities, given that the story was written well over a hundred years ago, they're probably if anything newfangled compared to what Buchan was expecting in his readers!
>18 AndreasJ: Good point! I have difficulty pleading my case sometimes, without vast reservoirs of knowledge and wisdom, but I took heart at the 'Deep Ones' title explanation being tongue-in-cheek and thus felt less intimidated here than elsewhere. Fickle and feisty, I may change my mind every 20 minutes...
Here is a blurb that helped place me in the mythology of various cultures. I know it is a juvenile/stand-up-comedy approach to a lot of serious issues and literary references, but for some reason, these folks can make the images stick. I watch it as I would a cooking show, to learn something, take away something, return to it if I need to. Again though, it is not the what it is the when, and the fact that this cropped up in the same week as reading this story, after having read many other non-Weird Tradition novels/shorts, is why I follow the path of the unplanned. I get such a tickle when it all works out, overlaps, lends itself to more in depth study. Cheers to the Weird!
(there is also one segment dedicated to The Holy Grail teehee)
It all began with Crash Course Literature (looking up info on Sylvia Plath) which spawned Crash Course Theatre (Lear, etc.) which morphed into Crash Course Mythology. Likely far beneath most of you, but for someone like me, who knows more doctrine than Roman, but more Roman than Greek ties, it is a glimpse without spending valuable reading time mired in research.
A warning to non-North Americans, the host might not appeal if ESL is an issue, or if hand gestures are annoying. Just skip to the part about Threshold at the 4 minute mark... I had never heard of Joseph Campbell before this.
>17 RandyStafford: In fairness, I did reread the story last night after completing Intruder In The Dust (and it's 1949 film), and was heartened by the narrator's repeated mentions of how much he did not want to abandon his cousin, and that he left for work obligations rather than returning to his 10days of hunting.
I also looked into the "Christ and the Demonaic" print above the bed, and found mostly references to the casting out of the demons into swine from that one poor fellow. I too felt the presence was not Lucifer, but rather a trapped demon from the early 'holy ground' experience, and the only reason he overtook Ladlaw was due to his late-May illness, which by early August was better but the deed had been accomplished by then, the unsettling terror intact. By October, he was sleep deprived and exhausted, but the daytime persona was relaxed and almost charming, while the dusk-to-dawn fellow was beside himself, literally! It was quite an image that house staff could make out a being leaving Ladlaw's side in the first hour of dawn. Interesting how it could come and go at will, but within set boundaries of time. It seemed in control, but other factors controlled it as well. Like the presence of the wife relieving his strain, as Theodora in the story of Justinian. I finally gave up trying to find the Italian artist who might have been responsible for the 'shadow print' but alas, my research uncovered nothing.
>19 frahealee: "Christ and the Demonaic"
I'd forgotten that bit, after also spending time trying to identify a specific print and getting more detail on the Biblical story of demons into swine. The main insights from that, for me, were that depending upon which Biblical story there might have been two demons or one; and that none of them seemed to reference a "figure on the left side" of the possessed. Buchan appears to have invented that, together with the corresponding bust of Justinian on Ladlaw's left.
As an aside, I must say you are doing more research on your reading than the typical reader I encounter, and I also rejoice in the serendipity (synchronicity) of crossing themes and references.
I'm interested in the YouTube link but it's blocked at work so shall have to make my way back to it sometime from home.
>20 elenchus: Speaking of research, turns out Buchan died as Governor General of Canada in Montreal, 1940. Yikes. Due respect granted. I'll make sure to breeze through his remaining works in my ebook by yearend; The Keeper of Cademuir, No-man's-land, The Grove of Ashtaroth, then The 39 Steps, etc. Might also tap into Buchan's historical biography of Sir Walter Scott (1932).
ETA: Also, my typo should read 'demoniac' in >19 frahealee: and why would you have a scene like that over someone's bed? Or the sacrifice of Isaac in the drawing room for that matter? Zoinks. Maybe just to illustrate the mindset of Ladlaw. It did parallel The Wendigo where the vulnerable bring upon their own demise in part by setting but in part by their level of belief. I am unfamiliar with Calvinism, although have heard of it. Did the demon see this picture as his way in or was it put there after as a vain 'trophy' like the bust and the other books in the library that replaced sports/hunting? Lesson learned … watch what you decorate your homes with people!
>17 RandyStafford: the ambivalent nature of the Watcher is striking
And that ambivalence is crucial for avoiding dissatisfaction in what elsewise would be an incomplete possession story. The various influences (pagan, Christian, Roman) point to something else overarching all of these. Partly that's why I find the Secret Journey explanation plausible, it accounts for those differences by pointing to the reader or audience or "possessed" as the source for the various conflicting details.
>22 elenchus: It's in marked contrast to stories where the nature of an otherworldly intrusion is rather precisely defined through a series of revelations and deductions. I think you could almost use Lovecraft as an example of that sort of structure and plot. Here, at story's end, we're not left with a delineated monster or a single shape of weirdness or menace. At the end of this story, we have a tenebrous thicket of possibilities.
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