The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

I’ve been meaning to read John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps for some years, having seen both the 1935 Hitchcock film (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together and on the run) and the 1978 film (Robert Powell hanging off the minute-hand of Big Ben) multiple times. (And I recently caught the second half of the 2008 BBC adaptation. Lydia Leonard rubs mustard into Rupert Penry-Jones’s muscly back. Not a scene from the novel.) Even more so when I read somewhere that the meaning of “the thirty-nine steps” is different in the novel than either film. It turns out to be a quite short book, and an interesting glimpse into the origins of the sort of spy-thriller that would come to be one of the defining genres of 20th century fiction.

Supposedly, Buchan decided to write The Thirty-Nine Steps when, finding himself ill in bed and having run out of the sort of “shocker” that provided the best convalescent reading — a “romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”, as he puts it in his dedication — he went ahead and wrote one himself. (Buchan was a writing powerhouse, producing a stream of novels, short stories, journalism and non-fiction books throughout a life already busy with a legal and political career that eventually saw him installed as Governor General of Canada. He paid for his own further education at Oxford by supplementing a scholarship with income from an already established writing career, but only ever regarded writing as a sideline.) The result was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between August and September 1915, then published in hardback in October the same year.

The set-up is basically the same in novel and films. Richard Hannay, having made a fortune as a mining engineer in Africa (though I think he’s Canadian in the Hitchcock film), comes back to England to live a life of leisure, but quickly becomes bored. Just when he’s thinking of returning to Africa, excitement comes knocking in the form of Scudder, an American who has for some time been working to crack the details of a covert plot that will lead Europe, and perhaps the whole of the world, into war — a war deliberately planned by a vague and undefined group of foreign agents. (In the Hitchcock film, the Scudder role is provided by a mysterious woman played by Lucie Mannheim. In the 1978 film, Scudder is a retired British intelligence officer played by John Mills.) Scudder has almost got all the details, and knows that the plan hinges on the visit of Karolides, the Greek Premier, to Britain, where he will be assassinated. Scudder needs to live until then so he can warn the authorities, but of course he’s murdered almost straightaway, leaving Hannay not only the one person who knows what’s going on, but also the only suspect in Scudder’s murder, meaning he can’t just turn to the police. He decides the best thing to do is go on the run till nearer the date of Karolides’ visit, then come back and — when he’s understood the contents of Scudder’s coded notebook — prevent the assassination and foil the villains’ plan. He fixes on Scotland as the place to hide, and sets out on a train for the Highlands.

For most of what follows, there’s really no plot, just a series of episodes, in which Hannay has to flee or hide the pursuit of both the police and the “Black Stone” (as the villainous organisation is known). Running across the wilds of Scotland and trying to survive sees him bumping into a variety of characters, from a would-be-novelist innkeeper, a local road-mender, a Free Trade politician, an automobile tourist who is implied to be homosexual (which Hannay, and Buchan through him, take as clear licence to be abusive), and an assortment of Highland locals. For me, this section felt a bit episodic without building up to anything, but it was clear Buchan was enjoying himself. I started wondering if there wasn’t a sort of metaphor for being a writer in Hannay’s situation, as though Buchan were writing about the adventure of writing itself. Given a clue in the form of a coded notebook — like being handed a moment of creative inspiration — Hannay finds himself impersonating a number of different people, like an author proving he can get inside the lives of a variety of characters. Hannay gets into situations he has to figure his way out of, and I couldn’t help feeling Buchan put him into those situations just so Buchan, too, could work his way out of them, as a sort of writing self-challenge.

The element of impersonation seems to be a key aspect of the book. Hannay starts off impersonating a milkman to escape his flat (which is being watched by the agents of the Black Stone), but later ends up playing the role of a tramp, a road-mender, an Australian political expert, and a petty thief, all in an attempt to escape detection. In this he’s guided by advice he remembers from an old friend, “the best scout I ever knew”, who told him how to pass himself off as someone else:

He said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards and such childish follies. The only thing that mattered was what Peter called ‘atmosphere’.

If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and—this is the important part—really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth…

Richard Hannay looking as much like James Bond as the illustrator can make him

It’s when Hannay eventually returns to England and gets in touch with the authorities that, for me, the tension properly kicks in. Suddenly, he has to understand the final clues in Scudder’s notebook — among them the meaning of that phrase, “the thirty-nine steps”, which will tell him how the villains are planning to escape the country — and catch them before they get out with vital information that will make war not only inevitable, but disastrous for Britain. It’s also at this point Hannay ceases having to impersonate people, and instead has to spot impersonators. The people he’s after are masters of disguise — one is able to walk into a closed meeting of the topmost military staff and pass himself off as the First Sea Lord, in front of people who must surely have met the First Sea Lord many times. Even when Hannay works out where the thirty-nine steps are, and finds the people he knows must be the villains, their bluff at being perfectly ordinary Englishmen is so perfect, he starts to doubt himself.

Quite how he sees through them, at the end, is a bit of a mystery, but it happens:

“…in a flash, the air seemed to clear. Some shadow lifted from my brain, and I was looking at the three men with full and absolute recognition… The three faces seemed to change before my eyes and reveal their secrets. The young one was the murderer. Now I saw cruelty and ruthlessness, where before I had only seen good-humour… The plump man’s features seemed to dislimn, and form again, as I looked at them. He hadn’t a face, only a hundred masks that he could assume when he pleased… But the old man was the pick of the lot. He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating, as ruthless as a steam hammer. Now that my eyes were opened I wondered where I had seen the benevolence. His jaw was like chilled steel, and his eyes had the inhuman luminosity of a bird’s.”

1915 HB cover

It reminds me of H G Wells’s early novels, whose protagonists come to see the world in two ways at once, as both superficially ordinary and, under the surface, full of potential danger. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, after his adventures, the protagonists can’t help seeing the potential beast in everyone around him, however superficially civilised. Here, it’s Hannay’s fellow citizens who seem perfectly, almost boringly, normal one moment, then villainous foreign agents, anarchists and spies the next. (And I can’t help comparing Buchan’s “He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating” with Wells’s “intellects vast cool and unsympathetic” from The War of the Worlds.)

Was there something in the late-19th/early-20th century psyche that started to look at the world in a new way, to see that behind the apparently ordered surface, there was the potential for nothing but chaos? Alien invasions and beastmen in the case of Wells, anarchists and war-mongers in the case of Buchan? Rooted, perhaps, in the likes of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, where that double-vision starts with the darker secrets of the human psyche, it quickly leads to distrust of one’s fellows, and then it’s only a short step to the ultimate cosmic horrors of Lovecraft or David Lindsay’s Gnostic fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus. There was definitely something in the collective imagination in those days, and the World Wars that followed did nothing to put anyone’s minds at rest as to the stable nature of things.

The other Buchan novel I’ve reviewed here at Mewsings, Witch Wood, has an element of this too, with its secret coven of Devil-worshippers in a Scottish village. Richard Hannay would become a continuing character in a number of other Buchan novels, which may be worth a read, and the ending, at least, of The Thirty-Nine Steps really worked as a thriller, for me.

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Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell

The protagonist of Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989) is Sandy Allan, a film editor at Metropolitan TV (which also appears in Campbell’s Incarnate, though here, at the other end of the 1980s, it’s no longer referred to as MTV). Her friend, Graham Nolan, hunts out rare old films to screen on the channel, and after a two-year search has managed to locate a print of a never-released British horror from 1938, Tower of Fear, which starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. He invites Sandy to his flat for an initial showing, but she gets there only to witness his death and to find the film gone. When a critic at the Daily Friend newspaper expresses doubt the film had ever been found, Sandy decides to track it down herself, to defend Graham’s reputation.

The film’s director, Giles Spence, died the week shooting finished, and many of the few surviving cast and crew won’t talk about it — some can’t, through infirmity, some won’t, though fear, some are prevented, though whether by accident or design it’s difficult for Sandy to tell, though she increasingly feels that something is dogging her efforts to track the film down. Her quest eventually takes her to the cosy village of Redfield, seat of Lord Redfield, who runs the Staff O’Life bread-making company, and who, it turns out, also owns the Daily Friend. Lord Redfield freely admits his family’s animosity towards the film, which he (and his grandfather, who spoke out against it at the time in the House of Lords) believed to be mocking their family and, through them, the values and traditions of England. But when Sandy learns there’s a legend about Redfield, of a mass-slaughter centuries ago which infused the soil with human blood, giving the village its name and the fields their power to grow an oddly vitalising strain of wheat, she also finds there seems to have been a regular history of human sacrifice, intentional or not, in the village, a fifty-year repeated ritual which last occurred (of course) fifty years ago.

As well as being a horror novel, Ancient Images is a novel about horror, about censorship, repression, and the role horror has in bringing out what ought not to stay hidden. It’s set (and was written) in the late 80s, when horror had come under a new bout of disapproval thanks to the Video Nasties brouhaha — and we get a glimpse of the subculture of people watching illicit films purely for their nasty moments when Sandy visits the editors of Gorehound fanzine — while the film Sandy’s searching for came out shortly after a similar scare in the 1930s, which saw the introduction of the H for Horrific film certificate. Throughout the book, Sandy hears disparaging comments about horror. Her father wonders why she’d bothering to seek out “some trash with two old hams in it”, and asks, “What can be right about a horror film?” Someone else says, “I wish you people would let this wretched film stay buried. Isn’t there already enough horror in the world?” Visiting a Manchester library, she sees “a bookshop from which police were bearing armfuls of confiscated horror magazines” — presumably Savoy Books, which was constantly harassed by James Anderton, the prurient Manchester Chief of Police whose “direct line to God” (as he put it) gave him, he believed, the role of moral arbiter, along with the power to enforce it. As Campbell puts it in his afterword to the book:

“This was the decade when Britain found a new scapegoat for its ills — uncensored films, particularly horror.”

Samhain edition. Art by Kanaxa.

Confronted about his grandfather’s role in suppressing Tower of Fear, the urbane Lord Redfield says, “It’s a curious notion of history that wants to preserve a film which tells so many lies about England and the English.” But the point is that Tower of Fear (in its very oblique way — it was hardly an exposé) wasn’t telling lies, it was unearthing truths. And this is the role horror fiction has, in Ancient Images. Scapegoats are loaded with a society’s sins to rid society of those sins — but before it’s sacrificed, a scapegoat is a bearer of the truth, because the sins are real. Lord Redfield seeks to promote an ultra-traditional vision of England, through the Hovis-like adverts for his Staff O’Life bread with their Vaughan-Williams soundtrack, as well as through the village of Redfield itself, a place where, he assures Sandy, everyone is happy with their place in life — a situation that is obviously too good to be true:

“Tudor cottages gleamed at one another across streets, brown houses sunned their smooth thatched scalps. As Sandy strolled, glancing in shop windows at glass-topped jars of striped sweets sticky as bees, hats like mauve and pink and emerald trophies on poles, elaborately braided loaves, knitting patterns and empty rompers, she heard children chanting answers in a classroom.”

Art by Don Brautigan

Nowadays we’d recognise the second half of this novel as pure folk horror, with its lord so beloved by his forelock-tugging people, the innkeeper who’s suspicious of strangers, the children’s games and “snatches of folksong” Sandy hears as she wanders the streets, as well as the difficulty she has in leaving the village, when she decides to. But in Ancient Images, the folk horror isn’t of an isolated community. As in John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, a village, here, is used to stand in for England as a whole. Redfield, perhaps, is England, presenting its nostalgia-laden image of cosy traditions to the world, while behind the scenes — or under the soil — there’s blood and violence waiting to erupt.

Lord Redfield bears it in his very name, as well as his position. As a member of the aristocracy, he sees himself as a paternalistic figure, preserving things as they are because that’s best for everyone, but this is to ignore the history of violence that put him there in the first place, and the now-hidden, but once very explicit, violence that keeps him there. Just because he doesn’t have thugs keeping the peace doesn’t mean there’s no threat, it’s just that the threat his power represents has become so much a part of the English class system it no longer needs to be referred to.

Tor 1993 edition, art by Gary Smith

To see it in action, you don’t look at cosy Redfield, where nobody is unhappy with their lot and there are no “For Sale” signs; you look at what happens when a stranger comes along — Sandy Allan, perhaps, or, on a larger scale, Enoch’s Army, a troupe of what would later be called New Age Travellers, wandering the roads of Britain, seeking a place where they can live by their own more peaceful (if equally reactionary, in its own way) philosophy. But they find themselves ousted everywhere they go, and having to be surrounded by police for their own protection. Enoch’s Army feels like the 1980’s remnants of the late-60s counterculture, now thoroughly out of place in a land whose temporary prosperity has caused it to cease to question its values.

It’s rich metaphoric territory — particularly as Campbell, who often refers to horror as “the field”, is here writing about a literal field, and a red one at that — with many resonances with later Campbell works, such as the film-research theme of The Grin of the Dark, and the sense of something hungry lurking under the soil in The Searching Dead. Plus an air of The Wicker Man, and of Theodore Roszack’s Flicker (though, as Campbell points out, this novel was written before Flicker).

For a bit of fun based on the novel, the A Very British Horror podcast did an episode on Giles Spence’s Tower of Fear, on (of course) April 1st 2016.

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