Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Imitation of Life: No-Man's Land Part 1 (John Buchan)

        In time things rose and moved around me, a few ragged shapes of men, without clothing, shambling with their huge feet and looking towards me with curved beast-like glances. I tried to marshal my thoughts, and slowly, bit by bit, I built up the present. There was no question to my mind of dreaming; the past hours had scored reality upon my brain. Yet I cannot say that fear was my chief feeling. The first crazy terror had subsided, and now I felt mainly a sickened disgust with just a tinge of curiosity. I found that my knife, watch, flask, and money had gone, but they had left me a map of the countryside. It seemed strange to look at the calico, with the name of a London printer stamped on the back, and lines of railway and highroad running through every shire. Decent and comfortable civilization! And here was I a prisoner in this den of nameless folk, and in the midst of a life which history knew not.

        Courage is a virtue which grows with reflection and the absence of the immediate peril. I thought myself into some sort of resolution, and lo! when the Folk approached me and bound my feet I was back at once in the most miserable terror. They tied me, all but my hands, with some strong cord, and carried me to the centre, where the fire was glowing. Their soft touch was the acutest torture to my nerves, but I stifled my cries lest some one should lay his hand on my mouth. Had that happened, I am convinced my reason would have failed me.

        So there I lay in the shine of the fire, with the circle of unknown things around me. There seemed but three or four, but I took no note of number. They talked huskily among themselves in a tongue which sounded all gutturals. Slowly my fear became less an emotion than a habit, and I had room for the smallest shade of curiosity. I strained my ear to catch a word, but it was a mere chaos of sound. The thing ran and thundered in my brain as I stared dumbly into the vacant air. Then I thought that unless I spoke I should certainly go crazy, for my head was beginning to swim at the strange cooing noise.

        I spoke a word or two in my best Gaelic, and they closed round me inquiringly. Then I was sorry I had spoken, for my words had brought them nearer, and I shrank at the thought. But as the faint echoes of my speech hummed in the rock chamber, I was struck by a curious kinship of sound. Mine was sharper, more distinct, and staccato; theirs was blurred, formless, but still with a certain root resemblance.

        Then from the back there came an older being, who seemed to have heard my words. He was like some foul grey badger, his red eyes sightless, and his hands trembling on a stump of bog oak.

        The others made way for him with such deference as they were capable of, and the thing squatted down by me and spoke.

        To my amazement his words were familiar. It was some manner of speech akin to the Gaelic, but broadened, lengthened, coarsened. I remembered an old book tongue, commonly supposed to be an impure dialect once used in Brittany, which I had met in the course of my researches. The words recalled it, and as far as I could remember the thing, I asked him who he was and where the place might be.
He answered me in the same speech—still more broadened, lengthened, coarsened. I lay back with sheer amazement. I had found the key to this unearthly life.

Note To Reader:  "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
— Samuel Johnson, September 20, 1777

Note 2 To Reader:  This post is dedicated to Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy. 

Note 3 To Reader:   For another view of No-Man's Land, see Here.


  1. I've got to read Buchan. Here's to Yvonne!

  2. You would find a lot of Buchan really enjoyable. As with anyone prolific as he was, there are certain series of his that I don't enjoy as much as others. I plan on covering the background of this short story in another post, but it's a very early piece that was published in Blackwood's Magazine, a prominent journal, in 1898 while Buchan was still an Oxford undergraduate. Its theme is subtly revealed, surprising and remarkably sophisticated for such a young person. One critic wrote that it's the sort of story that demands to be read at one sitting, but I find the opposite is true; it's emotionally draining. As with so much of Buchan's writing, his descriptions of nature (in this case his native Scotland) are very fine and his vocabulary enlarges your vocabulary, never a bad thing. Earlier today, under the dentist's drill, some parts of this scary story came back to haunt me. I'm feeling a little better now, but I hope not to bite my tongue again. Curtis

  3. Thank you for another beautiful piece. I admire your intelligence, discernment and dedication. I've been thinking of you all day - particularly as I walked the ice bound road to the island under the heavy gray sky. I'm so glad to be-friending you again. Thank you for today. Go raibh mile math agat. (can't find the accent keys). Also today I've spent time listening to Gaelic poetry at

  4. Thank you very much. Been thinking of you also. And I will listen to the Gaelic poetry as soon as I can get free of a few threatening work obligations. Currently I feel like someone completely adrift in other people's unpredictable (to me) schedules and I'm finding it very confusing. I posted part 2 of this surprising story today and a few words about the story's history and meaning. It's a surprising piece of work by a writer who is often misunderstood who had a lot of surprises in him (as well as vast and deep learning and a rich and fascinating vocabulary). Love from us here in Berwyn. Curtis