Hey folks! Rob here to tell you we are pleased as can be to welcome a new blogger to the second Wednesday of the month slot. David Edgerley Gates lives in New Mexico and has had a ton of stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. His work has been nominated for both the Edgar and Shamus Awards. He is probably best known for his "noir westerns" about Placido Geist. We look forward to hearing from David for many months to come...
by David Edgerley Gates
by David Edgerley Gates
Buchan was an interesting guy, who served in the Boer War and was actually a spy, later, in the First World War. He was ambitious in politics, but too liberal for the Tories, and too conservative for Winston Churchill---like Churchill, he was mothballed between the wars---and eventually wound up Governor-General of Canada, a more or less ceremonial post. He died in 1940.
Aside from THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, he wrote some three dozen novels, some of them thrillers, many of them historical romance. His titles were terrific, THE BLANKET OF THE DARK, THE GAP IN THE CURTAIN, A PRINCE OF THE CAPTIVITY, a book I always thought to be about Lawrence of Arabia.
He wrote them fast and loose. He called them penny-dreadfuls, or ‘shockers,’ and they were, depending overmuch on coincidence and accident, but they have enormous momentum, and on occasion genuine emotional power: the scene in MR. STANDFAST, for example, when Hannay encounters the Kaiser himself on a train platform, and sees the man, weighted down by his responsibility for this cruel folly. Buchan understood the primary job of a storyteller, don’t spin your wheels.
THE POWER HOUSE was published in 1916, a few years into the war. The character of the villain is almost certainly influenced by Nietzsche, as is, we might well imagine, Professor Moriarty. Conan Doyle and Buchan, as well as Kipling, another extremely invested writer, in the sense of believing deeply in the social fabric, although Kipling was by far the better craftsman, were conservatives of an older order, keepers of the flame.
THE POWER HOUSE could be seen as a parable, but I don’t believe Buchan meant it that way. A century later, a century that saw Hitler and Stalin, delusional maniacs who murdered millions of their own people, and many others, the book is still frightening in its prescience. Buchan’s frame of reference, though, is different from ours. We know the slaughter of the Great War, the Holocaust, or the genocides of Africa and the Balkan wars, so we look at a novel like THE POWER HOUSE, or PRESTER JOHN, through a lens of historical irony. Buchan was in ignorance of the horrific future. But he saw it in its lineaments. THE POWER HOUSE is Hitler, unfortunately not strangled in birth, Yeats' rough and slouching beast. Buchan had the gift, or curse, of foresight. Cassandra, unheeded.
John Buchan, or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Rudyard Kipling, might in all justice be called apologists for British imperialism. I don’t think, however, that they countenanced a philosophy that led to the death camps. Yes, the Boer War, which was a slippery slope, with the British the first to embrace internment of non-combatant women and children. Buchan was there, one of Milner’s acolytes. Perhaps it suggested something else to him, that this way lies madness. And it did.
Much of Buchan’s work dates badly, because he’s essentially a 19th-century guy, with a late-Victorian cultural and emotional mindset. There’s little graphic violence in his stories, and of course no sex at all. But the men of his generation came to be marked by the Great War, with its unthinkable slaughters, Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, the introduction of tank warfare, the use of poison gas. There were inspiring heroics, but at horrific human cost.
The world that came after, as Paul Fussell points out, was very different, different in both temperament and imagination. The key to THE POWER HOUSE is that Buchan foresees not the horrors to come, or even their political foundations, but the fertility of an individual capacity for evil, the earth from which the dragon’s teeth would spring.