The Watcher by the Threshold is the seventh book in my John Buchan reading project, Buchan of the Month. To find out more about the project and my reading list for 2018, click here. If you would like to read along with me you will be very welcome – leave a comment on this post or on my original challenge post. I’ll be sharing my review later this month.
What follows is an introduction to the book (no spoilers!).
The Watcher by the Threshold, a collection of novella/short stories, is another book by John Buchan I’ve not previously read. I’m really looking forward to approaching it with fresh eyes. It’s also a book that I don’t yet own a physical copy of so I’ll be relying on an ebook version.
The Watcher by the Threshold was published on 8th April 1902 by William Blackwood & Sons. The book contains five stories: ‘The Watcher by the Threshold’, ‘No-Man’s Land’, ‘The Outgoing of the Tide’, ‘The Far Islands’ and ‘Fountainblue’. The stories are all set in Scotland and all but one have a supernatural element. Written in 1898, they first appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Buchan wrote them partly as a way of supporting himself financially while he read for the Bar after graduating from Oxford.
David Daniell, author of The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan, sees signs of Buchan’s future books in many of the stories. For example, in the climax to ‘No-Man’s Land’, Daniell sees Buchan exploring his thriller-writing technique. He sees ‘The Outgoing of the Tide’ as ‘a first go’ at Witch Wood and ‘The Watcher by the Threshold’ and ‘No-Man’s Land’ as pointing to The Dancing Floor. Arguably, ‘Fountainblue’ also touches on a theme explored later in The Power House, namely the thinness of civilization. At one point, the hero of the story, Maitland, remarks on the division between ‘the warm room and the savage outdoors’ being no more than ‘a line, a thread, a sheet of glass’.
As an early offering from a writer who had not yet reached the peak of his fame and since short story collections don’t generally have the same popularity as full-length novels, it’s perhaps not surprising that The Watcher by the Threshold was only a modest commercial success. Buchan’s biographer, Janet Adam Smith, reports that by 1960 the book had sold 63,000 copies (compared with, say, 368,000 for Greenmantle). She also notes that, rather surprisingly, Blackwood brought out a new edition of The Watcher by the Threshold a few months before they published The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1916 but that it quickly sold 6,000 copies.
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland, 2009)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )