The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Watcher by the Threshold" (1900)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Watcher by the Threshold” was written by John Buchan and first appeared in Blackwood’s, Christmas Number, 1900). John Buchan (1875-1940) wrote widely. Although he is best-known for The Thirty Nine Steps and his Richard Hannay novels, Buchan also wrote histories, biographies, and some choice supernatural stories. “The Watcher by the Threshold” is one of his best stories.
“The Watcher by the Threshold” is about Robert John Ladlaw, a land-owner in the north of Scotland. He married a nice young woman, Sibyl, the cousin of Henry, the story’s narrator, and for a time all was well in their marriage. But one May he fell ill, and after that he never recovered:
A kind of insistent sleepiness hung over him, and he suffered much from nightmare. Toward the end of July his former health returned, but he was haunted with a curious oppression. He seemed to himself to have lost the art of being alone. There was a perpetual sound in his left ear, a kind of moving and rustling at his left side, which never left him by night or day. In addition, he had become the prey of nerves and an insensate dread of the unknown.1
Things got worse:
It became a living second presence, an alter ego which dogged his footsteps. He grew acutely afraid of it...the presence became more real daily. In the early dawning, in the twilight, and in the first hour of the morning it seemed at times to take a visible bodily form. A kind of amorphous featureless shadow would run from his side into darkness, and he would sit palsied with terror. Sometimes, in lonely places, his footsteps sounded double, and something would brush elbows with him.2
The “illness” metastasizes into full-blown possession, so Sibyl beseeches Henry for help. Henry visits Ladlaw and Sibyl and is initially doubtful about what’s plaguing Ladlaw–Henry thinks Ladlaw’s problems are merely hallucinations–but during the visit Ladlaw’s behavior goes beyond eccentric into the truly haunted. He recoils when things touch his left side; Henry says, “I have never seen a more sheer and transparent terror on a man’s face.”3 Ladlaw flinches from invisible blows, again on the left side of his body. And when Ladlaw and Henry drive around the moors Ladlaw talks, only he is not Ladlaw any more:
There was something indescribable in all he said, a different point of view, a lost groove of thought, a kind of innocence and archaic shrewdness in one. I can only give you a hint of it, by saying that it was like the mind of an early ancestor placed suddenly among modern surroundings. It was wise with remote wisdom, and silly (now and then) with a quite antique and distant silliness.4
One night Henry thinks he sees Ladlaw’s shadow doubled. Ladlaw’s horse, a “harmless elderly cob,” tries to kill Ladlaw. And then Henry is summoned back to his office on an important case, and by this time he is in such a state that he nearly flees in panic. Before Henry leaves he tries to find someone to keep Ladlaw company. Henry approaches the local minister, Oliphant, who disbelieves Henry’s explanation but agrees to visit the Ladlaws. Oliphant’s first meeting with Mr. Ladlaw goes poorly, and the following day Ladlaw says something which makes Oliphant think that he is “a brilliant and malignant satyr.”5 The minister leaves the Ladlaws as quickly as he can, and when Henry returns he finds the Ladlaw’s house empty. Henry and Oliphant go in search of Ladlaw, accompanied by some local men, and find him crouched in a hollow on a hill. When Oliphant approaches Ladlaw the two seem to grapple, even though Henry still sees Ladlaw crouching on the ground. Oliphant runs away, and when the locals find him he seems to be fending off an invisible enemy, a being who also attacks the local men. A hot, harsh wind blows, “and with the wind went the Thing which had so long played havoc in the place.”6 Ladlaw has no memory of the time in which he was possessed, and Oliphant, formerly a materialist, comes to have a much greater appreciation of the spiritual world.
“The Watcher by the Threshold” is a dandy story of ghosts and possession. The ghost is not just the being occupying Ladlaw’s body, but the entire cheerless landscape of Northern Scotland. Buchan does an excellent job of conveying the dreadful—literally full of dread—nature of the environment:
The place had a cunning charm, mystery dwelt in every cranny, and yet it did not please me. The earth smelt heavy and raw; the roads were red underfoot; all was old, sorrowful, and uncanny. Compared with the fresh Highland glen I had left, where wind and sun and flying showers were never absent, all was chilly and dull and dread.7
Buchan begins the story with the description of the hilly parish of the More, nicely setting the tone and putting the reader in the right frame of mind, then proceeds with the plot. The details of Ladlaw’s possession and haunting are chilling in their specificity. Best of all is Buchan’s skill at description. Readers who only know his work from his Richard Hannay novels will be surprised at how effectively Buchan describes the spooky landscape of the More.
“The Watcher by the Threshold” is a minor gem.
Print: John Buchan, The Watcher by the Threshold. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2005.
1 John Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” in The Watcher by the Threshold (New York: George H. Doran, 1917), 158.
2 Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” 159.
3 Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” 149.
4 Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” 169.
5 Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” 187.
6 Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” 201.
7 Buchan, “The Watcher by the Threshold,” 139.