No Man's Land

by John Buchan

John buchan Circa 1936
John Buchan
circa 1936

John Buchan (1875-1940), 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, would have filled a respectable page in history even if he had never written a word of fiction. He led a busy and useful life as colonial administrator, barrister, publisher, intelligence officer, historian, Member of Parliament, and finally Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada. But he is best remembered as the author of the prototypical espionage tale, The Thirty-Nine Steps, its sequels, some excellent historical novels, and several memorable short tales of horror and suspense.

The Watcher by the Threshold 1902
The Watcher by the Threshold
William Blackwood & Sons,
London, 1902

Buchan began his writing career while a student at Oxford in the 1890s, turning out novels partly from a need for financial support and partly from an innate love of storytelling. No Man’s Land—which could be classified either as a long short story or short novel—was first published in the January 1899 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, and later reprinted as one of the stories in Buchan’s 1902 book The Watcher by the Threshold. The story bears several of the hallmarks of Buchan’s later thrillers, particularly the concise but vivid descriptions of scenery, local color, and topography that give a grounded and believable feeling to fantastic adventures, and the emphasis on flight and pursuit in desolate country.

No Man’s Land contains the seeds not only of Buchan’s adventure novels but of his tales of horror as well; while the shadowy menace in the story presages the underground, omnipresent villainous organizations that figure in Buchan’s thrillers, it is also something more terrifying than a group of spies or criminals. Without revealing too much about the forthcoming tale, I can mention that the story is frequently cited as a strong influence on Robert E. Howard’s Bran Mak Morn saga; it also evokes some of the atmosphere of other Weird Tales writers’ stories—but in a terse and understated style that conveys more genuine eeriness than most of the purple prose of later pulp scribes.

Dan Neyer
May, 2013
Introduction © 2013 by Dan Neyer

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