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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Daphne du Maurier’s weird fiction

Although she’s more well-known nowadays for her modern-Gothic/psychological suspense novels such as Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951), both of which have been filmed several times, Daphne du Maurier produced some good shorter fiction that can be classed as weird, supernatural, or science-fictional — in a couple of cases all three at once — some of which have also been filmed, including The Birds (by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), Don’t Look Now (by Nicolas Roeg in 1973), and The Breakthrough (adapted for TV in 1975, and then filmed as The Lifeforce Experiment by Piers Haggard in 1994).

Hitchcock said that, when adapting, he would read the book or story once, then never look at it again, and it can seem that, with his film of The Birds (scripted by Evan Hunter), it’s only the basic idea of mass bird attacks on humans that the two have in common. Du Maurier’s story (in The Birds and Others, 1952) is set in rural Cornwall and has a male working-class protagonist; Hitchcock’s is set in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, and has a female upper-class lead. But there are moments of similarity, including a bird attack on school children, and a visit to a neighbouring farm where the farmer is found pecked to death. Both end without any solution or explanation. I’d say, though, that the roots of du Maurier’s story are more evident, in the way it draws so many parallels with the then still-recent Second World War. Her story is full of scenes of the family huddled round a wireless set, tuning in for news from the authorities, or blocking out the windows just as they’d have blacked them out during the war. As the bird attacks increase, the family bed down together in the kitchen, just as they might have in an air-raid shelter, and the wife says, “Won’t America do something? … They’ve always been our allies, haven’t they? Surely America will do something?” The main character thinks about the birds as he would an enemy army (“A lull in battle. Forces regrouping.”). At the end, as the attacks continue and the authorities struggle to do anything, it’s as though the state of how things were in the Second World War has somehow seeped out from the human world to become the natural order.

None of these are short stories — du Maurier preferred novella length, it seems — meaning that even when she’s working at an idea another weird-fiction writer might turn into a quick twist story, she explores it at greater depth. An example of this is “The Apple Tree” (also from The Birds and Others), about a man who can’t help being a little relieved at the death of his eternally hard-done-by wife, but who starts to notice a resemblance between a stunted tree in his garden and his late wife’s slouched posture, after which he suspects she’s using the tree to haunt him. It’s an idea that’s been used before (Lovecraft’s “The Tree”, for instance), but writing it at length, du Maurier really brings out the relentlessly stifling nature of the marriage, and the desperate futility of the husband’s attempts to find some joy in life now he’s no longer burdened by such a negative spouse. The supernatural element is just the icing on the cake — the final twist to a man who’s already haunted in a purely psychological sense.

Difficult marriages feature in a lot of du Maurier’s tales, and her own was, it seems, troubled at times. There were affairs on both sides (in Daphne’s case, with both men and women), and the couple seems to have been happier living apart — he in London, where he worked after his military career (he became Treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh), she in Cornwall. When her husband had a nervous breakdown, Daphne, learning he’d been having an affair, decided to do her best to save the marriage, but soon found the loss of creative solitude brought her to the edge of her own breakdown. Writing her next collection, The Breaking Point (1959), was her means of recovery.

Two of its stories stand out, for me. In “The Blue Lenses”, a woman who’s had an operation to implant new lenses into her eyes wakes to find she sees everyone with animals’ heads in place of their own, and seemingly the more she cares for them, the worse the head. (Her husband has a vulture’s.) It’s an unconventional idea for a horror story, at first absurd, but du Maurier quickly builds up the sense of inescapable isolation as her protagonist finds herself unable to hide her horror at what she sees. “The Pool”, meanwhile, is about a girl spending the school holidays with her brother at their grandparents’ house, for whose extensive garden she has an almost mystical reverence. She sneaks out at night to perform made-up rituals to bind herself, once more, to the garden, and to the strange world she can access through a pool in a thicket of trees. It reminded me of Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which is also about a girl drunk on her own mix of nature-mysticism and fairy lore. But du Maurier brings in an element Machen, I think, never would, as this heady mix of fantasy and weirdness is linked to the girl’s first period. (I wonder how transgressive this was for a book published in 1959? Other stories in the same volume deal with pederasty, incest, madness, and the disposal of a dead baby — all of which, I can’t help feeling, must have felt incredibly shocking at the time.)

Penguin paperback cover, art by Dave and Sue Holmes

For me, du Maurier’s most satisfying single collection is Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (which came out in 1971, initially as Not After Midnight). It’s a collection dominated by recent deaths and troubled mourning, with three of its five stories being about people dealing with grief.

“Don’t Look Now” has a disturbing circularity to its plot. Its main character has unacknowledged clairvoyant powers, and his own death only occurs because he has a vision of what happens as a result of that death. If he hadn’t seen it — if he’d not looked now — he wouldn’t have died. It’s quite a subtly-balanced tale, and I have to admit it’s one I don’t think (though I may be the only person who thinks this) works as well in Nicolas Roeg’s film, which brings even more ambiguities to a story that’s rich enough in them already. Writing of du Maurier in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Gary Crawford says “All du Maurier’s tales are symbolic and elegant, but they are less terrifying than simply strange, almost in the manner of Robert Aickman.” I don’t think du Maurier is often as outright surreal as Aickman, but “Don’t Look Now” may be her at her most dreamlike.

(And there’s a scene in the 1940 film of Rebecca, where the sinister Mrs Danvers urges the new Mrs de Winter to fondle her predecessor’s clothes, which seems straight out of Aickman’s “Ravissante” — only, of course, preceding it by nearly three decades.)

Still from Hitchcock's Rebecca

For a writer I most closely associate with Rebecca and the black & white Hitchcock/Selznick film based on it, “The Breakthrough” (which is copyrighted 1966, though I haven’t been able to find if it appeared before its inclusion in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories) feels very modern — or 1970s-modern, anyway. An electrical engineer is sent to help with an experimental government project to develop the use of sound as a weapon, but whose leader has co-opted the project to investigate what he calls “Force Six” — essentially, the sixth sense, and its possibility of providing “the explanation of telepathy, precognition, and all the so-called psychic mysteries.” This project leader, James MacLean, also believes that “Force Six” is released as pure energy when we die. Unconcerned with the idea of “souls”, MacLean believes that by trapping and using that energy, “We shall have the answer at last to the intolerable futility of death.”

This mix of secret research, up-to-date electronic gadgetry, and psychic phenomena recalls Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) and the episode of The Omega Factor (1979) which was also about the military use of sound. (And I can’t help wondering if it was one of these that inspired Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” (1986), also about the military use of sound.) It’s a satisfying tale, and the BBC2 adaptation (which you can watch on YouTube), is a good take on it.

Daphne du Maurier’s short story/novella output is quite varied, ranging from crime to satire to some outright strangeness (as with “The Lordly Ones” from The Breaking Point in which — I can’t be sure — a boy runs away from his indifferent parents and is briefly adopted by some ponies). My favourite non-fantastic story of hers is, I think, “The Way of the Cross” (from Don’t Look Now and Other Stories), in which a mismatched bunch of pilgrims visit Jerusalem and suffer their own betrayals, redemptions and resurrections in the space of a hectic twenty four hours. But overall my favourites are, of course, the weird ones, and generally those that have been adapted: “The Birds”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Breakthrough”, and, among the un-adapted, “The Pool” and “The Blue Lenses”. I think a good single-volume collection could be made from her weird fiction, but perhaps they’re better left where they are, as the strangeness of her strange tales seems all the stranger for being couched amongst her other, more normal — though never mundane — stories.

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Vertigo

We begin with a plunge into a human eye, and the hypnotic, whirling spirals in its depths. Vertigo (1958) is all about that plunge, that being caught in the combination tangle-and-embrace of an ever-revolving spiral, be that spiral love or deception, the frailties of one’s own mind, or the darkness and mysteries of another’s.

Vertigo is a lush film, and lushness is the invitation to plunge in, to immerse. The cinematography is lush, with its bold, smouldering colours, such as the almost supernatural green Hitchcock keeps bathing his leading lady in. Bernard Herrmann’s music is lush, with its teetering-on-the-edge arpeggios at the start, and the deep, romantic surrender-sigh of its love theme. And it may sound odd, but I think the plot is lush, too. How can a plot be lush? Because it tangles you in its ever-whirling spiral, pulling you deeper and deeper, and the deeper you go the richer it gets, increasing in questions, complications and implications the more you give in to its embrace.

Usually when a film has one of those mid-point reveals which throw a new light on everything that went before, it makes the plot clearer. If you watch the film again, it’s with a series of mental tumbler-clicks. “Ah, so that’s why-so-and-so did such-and-such…” But when Vertigo passes through its central reveal, it only seems to make things clearer. Once you start to think about it, it actually makes everything that’s been going on even stranger.

I’m not going to lay out the whole plot (though what follows contains spoilers), but it begins with Scottie (Jimmie Stewart), retiring from the police force after a roof-top chase proves him to have a debilitating fear of heights, and results in the death of a fellow officer. Jobless and aimless, he’s contacted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, who needs someone to follow his wife — not because he thinks she’s having an affair, but because he believes she’s come under the influence of a past she never knew about. Somehow, she’s being possessed by the spirit of her long-dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who took her life at the age Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is now. Though initially reluctant, Scottie takes the job, and does so because Madeleine is beautiful. As he follows this dreamy young woman in her wanderings about San Francisco, he falls in love with her.

Why does he fall in love with her? Not only because she’s beautiful, but because she’s in need of being saved, and Scottie is very much in need of saving someone, because that’s the only way he can redeem himself. His masculinity took a blow when he was forced to leave the police, and what he needs to restore it, to feel like a hero again, is to save some beautiful, haunted young woman from… whatever it is she needs saving from, be it her own psychology, a darkness from the past, or the ghost of dead Carlotta.

The thing is, this story about Madeleine being possessed and death-obsessed isn’t true. The Madeleine Scottie follows isn’t haunted by the past, she’s not Gavin Elster’s wife, she’s not even called Madeleine. It’s an act, part of a murder plot to do away with someone Scottie never meets, but for whose death he is going to be made to feel responsible.

Can the love for someone who’s not real be real? If you judge by its effects — losing the unreal Madeleine plunges Scottie into a near-catatonic combination of melancholia and guilt — it is real. And anyway, even though “Madeleine” is an act, there’s something about the act that is true. Because this woman does need saving. Not from the spirit of dead Carlotta, but from the tangles of Gavin Elster’s murder plot. So perhaps Scottie does love the real woman behind the Madeleine-facade, the woman who needs saving, and whose redemption can, in turn, save him.

And perhaps another proof his love for her is real is that Madeleine — or the woman who’s only pretending to be Madeleine, but who nevertheless is on the receiving end of Scottie’s love — falls in love with him. Which is even stranger, because that means she’s fallen in love with a man who loves her because he thinks she’s someone else.

After things go wrong and Gavin gets away with murder, and the real Madeleine is dead and Scottie thinks he’s to blame, he meets Judy (Kim Novak, again). Distraught over the death he thinks he caused, he sees enough of his Madeleine in Judy to make him think he can remake this young woman in her image. Which, of course, he can, because she’s the same woman. And when he turns up at her door, Judy, who has made an obvious effort to look and act as unlike Madeleine as she can — brunette as opposed to blonde, gaudy makeup and chunky jewellery as opposed to elegant understatement, homespun, high-voiced innocence as opposed to deeper-voiced, smouldering refinement — Judy at first thinks she has to run away, because she is, after all, accomplice to a murder. But she doesn’t run away, and that’s because she’s genuinely in love with Scottie.

Judy and her ghostly alter-ego

Or is she? This Judy that we meet in the second half of the film is also an act. She’s doing her best to be as unlike Madeleine as she can, so as not to be discovered. She has been cast off by her former lover/accomplice Gavin, so she might well be looking for a protector, and she knows enough about Scottie — now a vulnerable, broken man clearly capable of being manipulated — to play him. She may have seemed to be falling in love with him even when she was still playing Madeleine, right before the murder, but was she, really? She later claims she ran to the bell-tower of the church to prevent the murder of Elster’s wife, but how can that be true? She must have known that, the moment she appeared in the tower’s top chamber, Elster would throw his already-dead wife’s body off the top of the tower. And the key thing is already-dead. The murder, by that point, would have already taken place. If she’d really fallen for Scottie, and wanted to prevent the murder, she should have taken him away from the tower and explained everything. He was an ex-policeman, he’d have known what to do. But she didn’t. What she did gives every appearance of going ahead with the plan.

At no point in the film can we be sure we meet the real Judy. But it could be, in a mirror-image of Scottie’s story from the first half of the film, that she might be trying to redeem herself for her role in the murder by trying to save this broken man from his lovelorn melancholia. She may also truly love him. Or it could be that, though she might not (like most of us, with regards to both Vertigo and life) understand this complex, ever-deepening spiral she’s found herself caught in, but she’s doing what, in this film at least, is the one thing human beings can do in the face of so much confusion and deception: she’s finding someone she can cling to.

This is what Vertigo is about. It’s about clinging to whoever’s there to cling to. There are several long sequences in Vertigo where Jimmie Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy are caught in an extended clinch — it’s the only word for it — a constantly moving, restless mix of kiss, embrace, controlling hold, and don’t-leave-me grip. At times, they’re struggling against one another, at others they’re just sort of pressing helplessly into one another as though no hold could ever be close enough. (In the final sequence, they spend over five minutes in near-constant physical contact, even as they cross a quadrangle and climb the steep, spiralling steps of a church tower.) The first time I saw the film, I was left for some time afterwards with a lingering, almost physical feeling of touch, and it was these intense clinging/clinching scenes that did it.

Despite the labyrinthine tangles of its plot and its characters’ deception-based identities and constantly-questionable motives, what’s real in Vertigo, both for the characters and the viewer, is that moment of finding something to cling to amidst all the whirling spirals and vertiginous plunges. That’s why they cling — because they’ve finally found something solid, something real, a living presence in a world of shadows and ghosts and lies.

Vertigo’s is a world in which there’s no solid ground, and only the feeling of falling is real. You find someone to cling to who’s falling with you, or you do it alone. Obsession isn’t, in this world, an aberration, it’s the only workable response. Scottie’s pal Midge’s lukewarm attempts to get him to love her aren’t anywhere near enough. What’s needed is superheated, Gothic Romantic Noir levels of obsession. Love, in Vertigo, is utterly irrational and absurd — the idea of trusting anyone in a world so full of deception and lies is impossible — so, even if it springs to life on the back of a lie, as long as it does spring to life, you cling to it for all your life and sanity are worth.

This, I think, is the way to watch Vertigo — and re-watch it, and re-watch it, ever deepening the obsession. As you watch it, you know you’re being presented with lies and deceptions, magic tricks and hypnotic passes — not just in the film, by its characters, but by its director, the arch-manipulator of audiences, Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is, I’d say, his most potent spell. So the best thing to do is give in to the plunge, cling to the cling of Vertigo, obsess with the obsession, otherwise you’ll be lost, alone, in an ever-whirling fall…

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