Reviewed by Julie Barham
This is a splendid book for all those who revel in the scary, the heroic and the unusual. Anyone familiar with John Buchan’s best known novel, The 39 Steps, will know that it contains a lot of chasing around Scotland and unusual events, combining humour and the fear that capture and danger lurks around every corner. This collection of short stories, linked by the idea that they are tales told in a club, cover the world, with a leaning towards Britain. There are tales of the supernatural, the political and the adventurous as men recall events that have caused a ripple in a local area, countrywide and across continents. Danger, determination and gentle observation appear in these stories, as each tale succeed another, all drawn together by Buchan’s strong writing style, and set in context by Kate Macdonald’s detailed and thoughtful introduction to each story.
In one of the most memorable stories, a couple of adventurers encounter supernatural events in a remote African village. Death is not immediate, but a certain inevitability pervades the storytelling. Mistaken identity and a not unfamiliar race across moorland dominates another tale, while wartime espionage is far from obvious but becomes an underlying theme in another. Supernatural forces abound, and extreme isolation threatens sanity in a Scottish tale. These stories are of individuals against the odds, trying to understand the world, or at least the people around them. Not all of the protagonists are strong, brave or wise; the narrator of one episode despairs of a young man who falls so far in the eyes of the world, but finds a kind of bravery. One of my favourite stories is of a house whose atmosphere is so strong that entire lifestyles change, as Buchan seems to have a gentle dig at contemporary obsessions. The idea of fake news is explored in a 1928 story of rumour, chance and international reporting that is of its time, yet eerily familiar. These are stories of the early twentieth century, which implies problems with language and attitude to race and class that may sit uneasily with twenty-first century sensibilities. One obvious difference is that this is a male dominated world. Women make few appearances in these tales, and when they are mentioned, they are not leaders or decisive forces. Men are presented as frequently weak or easily influenced, and these are honest stories of fear and even terror, rather than continuous heroics.
Handheld Classics have succeeded in bringing out a clear, well produced edition of stories that are immensely readable. There are notes explaining the references in each story for the non- expert which help to explain possible points of confusion. The Introduction to the book includes a short piece on each story giving background and in some ways an explanation. I found these fascinating, but to be read after the story to avoid revealing too much too soon. The production values of this book are very high and it is a sturdy paperback, ideal as a present to yourself or others. If you are a fan of Buchan you will love this final collection of his stories. If you are new to his writing this is a fine example of the adventurous story telling that he is justifiably famed for, and the sort of powerful writing which typified the age.
Julie blogs at Northern Reader
John Buchan, The Runagates Club (Handheld Classics, 2017.) 978-1999828011, 280pp., paperback.
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