John Buchan’s “Huntingtower”, A Novel Fit for Cthulhu

Wednesday , 24, October 2018 5 Comments

Reading modern day Lovecraft pastiches to prep for your Call of Cthulhu game? What a moke.

Reading Lovecraft’s own works to prep for your Call of Cthulhu game? That’s baroque.

Reading John Buchan’s works to prep for your Call of Cthulhu game? Now that, my friends, is a brilliant stroke.

Yeah, I’m still singing the praises of John Buchan. After a number of misfires on the independent author front – I’m loathe to write poor reviews for people already swimming upstream against the mainstream publishing houses– I’ve gone back to the reliable palette cleanser of post-WWI British adventures, and what an adventure Buchan delivers in Huntingtower. Published in 1922, it’s the first of three books featuring recently retired grocery store mogul Dickson McCunn. At age fifty-five, the man takes an early retirement and with his wife gone to the hydropathic spa for a week, determines to set out for a walking tour of the countryside environs around Glasgow.

The story starts slow, with all the careful deliberations of McCunn himself, Buchan settles in for a sedate introduction to the story’s chief protagonist and his early efforts at the bucolic, Shire-like adventure of a walk in the countryside. The pace is actually quite deceptive, as all of the colorful figures and personalities he encounters come roaring back into the story when he arrives at the village which lies at the foot of the titular tower. There, he finds himself embroiled in the daring rescue of a princess held captive in Huntingtower by Bolshevik agents. Told with typical British restraint, the rescue involves a host of characters which include a young poet who manages an adroit heel-face turn early on, a band of brave young ragamuffins, an aging housewife wise beyond her years and station, and near the end a quartet of maimed ex-soldiers with more effective armaments than effective arms and legs.

There’s probably a specific name for novels that fit into this niche. Something like a cozy romance, but for proper British starched collar types. You’ll have to ask Nathan or Alexander about that, all I can tell you is that the book moves along at its own pace and after a frenzied climax of a siege on Huntingtower, actually ends with a bit of a deus ex machina that leaves the hands of the rescuers relatively blood-free. It’s a pleasant read, and charming, and definitely the product of a different time. As a blood-pounding adventure, it lacks. As a peek into the daily lives of inter-war Brits, it shines like a diamond.

And that’s the take-home message. If you want to run a period appropriate game of Call of Cthulhu, you could read all sorts of history texts, watch a few contemporary dramas that get the feel and culture “close enough to work, but not close enough to offend delicate modern sensibilities”, or even read ghost stories written in the interwar years. All of these will give you some idea of the culture of interwar Britain, but the first will be too dry, the second too inaccurate, and the third focus too much on the macabre.

Or you could read Huntingtower. The best bits in the story are those long, slow descriptions of ordinary life. John Buchan leaves the camera to linger on the day-to-day concerns of everyone from poverty stricken orphans struggling to prove their worth, to middle-class merchants struggling to balance the need to do the right thing with the need to do the proper thing, to dignified war veterans admitting to a greater fear of public humiliation than the fear of death. This book includes a short passage that provides a clinic on the importance of the skill “Credit Rating”. It delves into the sorts of armaments typically found on a country estate and the relationships between retired barons and their trusted manservants. Without the need to spend time plumbing the depths of metaphysical and supernatural horror, Huntingtower gives the reader a clinic on what life would be like before the unspeakable sleeping godlings awaken and before the things that live in the shadows crawl out to break the minds of mortal man. It does all of this within the context of life-threatening danger, and within the context of people fighting for their lives and for all things good and true and beautiful, and thereby provides a better primer on the everyday setting than all the role-playing game supplements ever written.

Don’t be afraid to stretch your own legs and take this countryside adventure for a turn. You may find it sparks your imagination in ways perfectly suited to darker, cyclopean, and non-Euclidian adventures.

5 Comments
  • deuce says:

    Thanks for the review! Buchan is underappreciated.

  • Bruce says:

    Great to see reviews of Buchan. The Power House might work for a conspiracy Call of Cthulhu.

  • Paul says:

    Buchan is a great writer. The 39 Steps deserves its reputation, and is different to the Hitchcock film, which is fantastic in its own right.

    I’ve only read one of his short stories, The Wind in the Portico, a weird tale from the collection The Runagates Club, and really enjoyed it. It’s a very British version of those stories about pagan gods trying to come back into the world. You can find it online at https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20130735

  • Constantin says:

    Good to see John Buchan getting more exposure. Great writer, and unapologetically masculine.

  • David says:

    One of my favourite books.

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