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Buchan, John

Entry updated 21 December 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1875-1940) Scottish barrister, politician, journalist, publisher and author; ill-health and his age prevented his active service in World War One, a disqualification which deeply distressed him, though he joined the War Office in 1916 and became Director of the Department of Information in 1917. He served as Governor-General of Canada from 1935 until his death, in conjunction with which appointment he was created the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. Buchan began to publish work of genre interest with "On Cademuir Hill" for the Glasgow University Magazine in October 1894, most of his supernatural stories appearing in volumes like Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People (coll 1899), The Watcher by the Threshold and Other Tales (coll 1902), The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies (coll 1912) and The Runagates Club (coll 1928), the latter comprising tales told within a Club Story frame [for vts and other collections see Checklist below]; The Complete Short Stories (coll 1996-1997 3vols) assembles all his tales, though its editor Andrew Lownie's choice of copy text can be eccentric. Of this work, the novella "No-Man's-Land" (January 1899 Blackwood's Magazine) is of some sf interest for its treatment of a tribe of undiscovered Picts as a Lost Race; the narrator of "The Knees of the Gods" (January 1907 The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal) unfolds a surprisingly unsour dream vision of a socialist 1930s Britain where everyone is unrelentingly healthy and mountains have been monetized for tourists; and "Space" (May 1911 Blackwood's Magazine), presents the concept that the "corridors of space" shift constantly according to arcane and terrifying Mathematical principles.

This last tale is the first to be narrated by Buchan's favourite continuing character, Sir Edward Leithen, also a barrister, a figure central to a sizeable group of fictions connected more by the reappearance of various characters than by linked narratives, and which are again couched within a Club Story context, though the narratively inert but thematically engaging The Power-House (December 1913 Blackwood's Magazine; 1916) is told audienceless by Leithen with slightly untoward simplicity. It is the first of Buchan's tales to be set on the world stage – with the exception of the lightly fictionalized nonfantastic symposium novel, A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906) initially anonymous – and dramatizes his reiterated anxieties about the fragility of civilization, as the aspirational Superman Villain (or Antihero-in-hiding) known as the Power-House puts it here to the intellectually supine Leithen, in Buchan's most famous, but not his first, iteration of his conviction that civilization was inherently fragile:

"You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn."

Although – as normal in popular media for more than a century – the Devil gets the best lines here, it is hard to think that the Power-House is not in this case articulating Buchan's deepest anxieties about a world he spent the substance of his career defending, far more rigidly than, for instance, his older contemporary H Rider Haggard, whose darker and more supple sense of precariousness showed a deeper understanding of Charles Darwin, and was not moat-defensive of a British Empire (see Imperialism) "chivalrously" dedicated to the defense of the white Christian world. More sophisticatedly, a sense of the frailty of the modern is manifest in The Dancing Floor (7 May-20 June 1926 The Popular Magazine as "The Goddess from the Shades"; 1926); narrated and participated in by Leithen, the tale is set on a Greek Island haunted by the seasonal return of the chthonic goddess Koré, here a figure combining aspects of Demeter and Persephone (see She for consanguinous vulgarizations of this figure), and Andrew Lang's Custom and Myth (1884), whose arguments about the persistence of the chthonic in the modern world were a clear influence.

Buchan's last novel, Mountain Meadow (1941; vt Sick Heart River 1941), traces the recurring, quasi-autobiographical Leithen to a particularly Canadian terminus: an "uncanny" hidden valley deep in unplumbed mountains which, though almost supernaturally clement, is a lifeless wilderness, a kind of Lost World in reverse: here infection and Transcendence almost kill the dying barrister, though he does not die till later, back in the world he has served.

The Richard Hannay sequence comes close to the fantastic, especially in the first three chase-dominated volumes – The Thirty-Nine Steps (June-July 1915 All-Story Weekly; 1915), filmed as The 39 Steps (1935) by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow as The 39 Steps (2009) with a Steampunk affect; Greenmantle (July-November 1916 Land and Water; 1916) and Mr Standfast (7 January-20 February 1919 The Popular Magazine; 1919) – which present a panoramic, romanticized vision of the Great War as an arena where preternaturally gifted Heroes and Villains might joust for planetary stakes against a background of Imperial Gothic fears of Invasion from the East, a wide field of action Buchan did much to define, and which survived in fiction into the acid bath of World War Two. Further titles in the Hannay sequence continue and enrich the mode. In The Three Hostages (14 June-8 August 1924 All-Story Weekly; 1924), which is set after the War, Hannay makes himself deliberately vulnerable to a demonic antagonist, who almost unmans him through his abnormal powers of Hypnotism; the tale itself turns on the actions of Hannay's wife, who is (unusually for Buchan) both smarter and more ruthless than her husband (see Women in SF). "The Green Wildebeest" (in the already-cited The Runagates Club) is a story set in South Africa in which Hannay's young and impulsive Boer travelling companion accidentally disturbs the supernatural guardian of a tribal shrine, and is hunted to his doom. The tale is remarkable for the respect Hannay shows the native priest, whose belief that the shrine has been desecrated is honoured, in sharp contrast with the uncouth and bigoted attitudes of the Boer youth. The Island of Sheep (1936) is nonfantastic if unlikely (the earlier The Island of Sheep [1919] a symposium tale as by Cadmus and Harmonia, shares nothing but its title with the 1936 novel). Overall, the dreamlike narrative cohesion of the longer Hannay tales, and the exorbitant literalism that governs the succession of precisely described but magically-apt coincidences and timings that carry the stories onward, lift them so far from the mundane they might serve as central examples of what could be called the Lateral Fantastic – which for Buchan, as he implies in the nonfiction A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys (1922), often focuses on "the efforts of men to cover a certain space within a certain limited time under an urgent compulsion" – and are best read as contributing to the larger world of Fantastika as a whole.

A third series, the Dickson McCunn sequence, is nonfantastic, though its final volume, The House of the Four Winds (1935), which is set in the imaginary East European country of Evallonia, is uneasily Ruritanian; the tale, dominated by the actions of Juventus, a gang of cleancut populist "Greenshirts" whose military "discipline" evokes the darker Shirts; Buchan seems clearly to have intended his Greenshirts as a satire and warning about interbellum European Politics. His back-to-the-soil corps was almost certainly based on John Hargrave's real-life Green Shirts, an organization based on his own earlier Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, on whose board H G Wells served.

Some further individual tales edge into the fantastic. In The Path of the King (coll of linked stories 1921) the life and career of Abraham Lincoln fulfil in detail a prophecy made centuries before; the eponymous gypsy king in Midwinter: Certain Travellers in Old England (1923), acts as a kind of combined Puck and Secret Master in eighteenth century England, his apparent goal being the preservation of "Old England", which he describes to Samuel Johnson as both ambient and profoundly chthonic. "The Shut Door" (July 1926 The Boys' All-Round Book) is a World War One story involving a portal to a world inhabited by a Morlock-like ancient race; Witch Wood (1927), set in the seventeenth century, involves witches and a minister; in The Courts of the Morning (1929), characters featured in other Buchan adventures thwart a South American entrepreneur's attempt to rule the world through the use of a powerful Drug; in The Magic Walking-Stick (1932), a children's fantasy, the eponymous Magic stick transports a young boy anywhere he wishes; "Ho! The Merry Masons" (July 1933 Nelson's Help Yourself Annual) is a Poe/Lovecraftian mashup of a medieval room haunted by its builders. Lake of Gold (1941; vt The Long Traverse 1941) comprises a series of lessons in Canadian history as conveyed by an "Indian" with Magic powers to young Donald, some scenes (interspersed with poetry) focusing on the Toonit people, who are described as the last aboriginals to survive, long-lost, in Canada (see Lost Races). The influence of Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (coll of linked stories 1906) is detectable.

Buchan's only sf novel proper, in which Leithen again participates, is The Gap in the Curtain (1932); a Nobel Prize-winning scientist exposes seven members of the British upper classes to an experience of Precognition of the Near Future, based on the Time theories of J W Dunne. Each sees, in an issue of the London Times from one year hence, an unmistakable reference to his fate (the only woman involved has fainted too soon to see what will happen to her; see Women in SF); as a result an entrepreneur becomes involved in the exploitation of michelite, a new mineral which cannot be dented and cannot corrode; others become involved in near-future politics; and one comic narrative, taking off from P G Wodehouse, is an Appointment in Samarra tale with a happy ending. The focus of the episodes told within this frame is on the nature of character, which is infinitely mutable, not on the future, which (properly understood) is fixed.

If there is a disappointingness about Buchan's oeuvre as a whole, some sense that a potentially formative novelist never stretched his gifts to encompass the contemporary world, this may be a direct consequence of the formal conservatism of his literary taste, which did not consort with modernity. Indeed, in more than 1,000 occasional pieces published in the Spectator and elsewhere, he almost never reviewed a contemporary novel (perhaps by mutual agreement, the Spectator did not give him modern fiction to cover). In the end, not unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, he fatally expressed the mores of his time and aspirational class by preferring his less inspired historical novels over the spry escapist adventures, where genius occasionally flickers.

Buchan has been described as an illiberal imperialist (see Imperialism), an anti-Semite, a racist, and a philistine; and it must be conceded that masked as a popular novelist – one of several masks worn by this ingeniously uneasy man – he allowed his more clubbable protagonists (particularly Richard Hannay, after he becomes a soldier) to utter opinions that now seem loathsome. But Hannay's opinions, for instance, are continuously dislodged from our attention by the major-general's heterodox behaviour, for he is humane, sensitive, forgiving, and rather fly. Much the same, more complexly, may be said of Buchan himself. [JC]

John Norman Stuart Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield

born Perth, Scotland: 26 August 1875

died Montreal, Quebec: 11 February 1940



Richard Hannay

  • The Thirty-Nine Steps (Edinburgh, Scotland: William Blackwood and Sons, 1915) [first appeared June-July 1915 All-Story Weekly: Richard Hannay: hb/]
    • The 39 Steps (New York: Samuel French, 2009) [play: adaptation by Patrick Barlow of the above: first performed 17 June 2005 West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds: pb/Mark Thomas]
  • Greenmantle (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916) [first appeared July-November 1916 Land and Water: Richard Hannay: hb/]
  • Mr Standfast (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) [first appeared 7 January-20 February 1919 The Popular Magazine: Richard Hannay: hb/]
  • The Three Hostages (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924) [first appeared 14 June-8 August 1924 All-Story Weekly: Richard Hannay: hb/]
  • The Island of Sheep (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936) [Richard Hannay: hb/Hugh Chesterman]
    • The Man from the Norlands (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1936) [vt of the above: Richard Hannay: hb/N C Wyeth]

Edward Leithen (selected)

  • The Power-House (Edinburgh, Scotland: William Blackwood and Sons, 1916) [first appeared December 1913 Blackwood's Magazine: Edward Leithen: hb/]
  • The Dancing Floor (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926) [first appeared 7 May-20 June 1926 The Popular Magazine as "The Goddess from the Shades": Edward Leithen: hb/]
  • The Gap in the Curtain (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1932) [Edward Leithen: hb/uncredited]
  • Mountain Meadow (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941) [Edward Leithen: hb/Rockwell Kent]

Dickson McCunn (selected)

individual titles (selected)

collections (posthumous collections selected)


Complete Short Stories

individual titles

nonfiction (highly selected)

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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