No Man’s Land (4)
June 21, 2015
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize John Buchan’s 1899 science fiction novella No Man’s Land. First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, the story is sometimes cited as an influence on Robert E. Howard and other pulp writers of Howard’s era. We are great admirers of Buchan’s, at HILOBROW: Seven of his books appear on our list of the 200 Greatest Adventure Novels, and we’ve previously serialized his 1922 adventure novel Huntingtower. Enjoy!
When the window was shuttered and the lamp lit, I set myself again to the completion of my notes. The shepherd had got out his Bible, and was solemnly reading with one great finger travelling down the lines. He was smoking, and whenever some text came home to him with power he would make pretence to underline it with the end of the stem. Soon I had finished the work I desired, and, my mind being full of my pet hobby, I fell into an inquisitive mood, and began to question the solemn man opposite on the antiquities of the place.
He stared stupidly at me when I asked him concerning monuments or ancient weapons.
“I kenna,” said he. “There’s a heap o’ queer things in the hills.”
“This place should be a centre for such relics. You know that the name of the hill behind the house, as far as I can make it out, means the ‘Place of the Little Men.’ It is a good Gaelic word, though there is some doubt about its exact interpretation. But clearly the Gaelic peoples did not speak of themselves when they gave the name; they must have referred to some older and stranger population.”
The shepherd looked at me dully, as not understanding.
“It is partly this fact — besides the fishing, of course — which interests me in this countryside,” said I gaily.
Again he cast the same queer frightened glance towards the window. “If ye’ll tak the advice of an aulder man,” he said slowly, “ye’ll let well alane and no meddle wi’ uncanny things.”
I laughed pleasantly, for at last I had found out my hard-headed host in a piece of childishness. “Why, I thought that you of all men would be free from superstition.”
“What do ye call supersteetion?” he asked.
“A belief in old wives’ tales,” said I, “a trust in the crude supernatural and the patently impossible.”
He looked at me beneath his shaggy brows. “How do ye ken what is impossible? Mind ye, sir, ye’re no in the toun just now, but in the thick of the wild hills.”
“But, hang it all, man,” I cried, “you don’t mean to say that you believe in that sort of thing? I am prepared for many things up here, but not for the Brownie — though, to be sure, if one could meet him in the flesh, it would be rather pleasant than otherwise, for he was a companionable sort of fellow.”
“When a thing pits the fear o’ death on a man he aye speaks well of it.”
It was true — the Eumenides and the Good Folk over again; and I awoke with interest to the fact that the conversation was getting into strange channels.
The shepherd moved uneasily in his chair. “I am a man that fears God, and has nae time for daft stories; but I havena traivelled the hills for twenty years wi’ my een shut. If I say that I could tell ye stories o’ faces seen in the mist, and queer things that have knocked against me in the snaw, wad ye believe me? I wager ye wadna. Ye wad say I had been drunk, and yet I am a God-fearing, temperate man.”
He rose and went to a cupboard, unlocked it, and brought out something in his hand, which he held out to me. I took it with some curiosity, and found that it was a flint arrow-head.
Clearly a flint arrow-head, and yet like none that I had ever seen in any collection. For one thing it was larger, and the barb less clumsily thick. More, the chipping was new, or comparatively so; this thing had not stood the wear of fifteen hundred years among the stones of the hillside. Now there are, I regret to say, institutions which manufacture primitive relics; but it is not hard for a practised eye to see the difference. The chipping has either a regularity and a balance which is unknown in the real thing, or the rudeness has been overdone, and the result is an implement incapable of harming a mortal creature. But this was the real thing if it ever existed; and yet — I was prepared to swear on my reputation that it was not half a century old.
“Where did you get this?” I asked with some excitement.
“I hae a story about that,” said the shepherd. “Outside the door there ye can see a muckle flat stane aside the buchts. Ae simmer nicht I was sitting there smoking till the dark, and I wager there was naething on the stane then. But that same nicht I awoke wi’ a queer thocht, as if there were folk moving around the hoose — folk that didna mak muckle noise. I mind o’ lookin’ out o’ the windy, and I could hae sworn I saw something black movin’ amang the heather and intil the buchts. Now I had maybe threescore o’ lambs there that nicht, for I had to tak them many miles off in the early morning. Weel, when I gets up about four o’clock and gangs out, as I am passing the muckle stane I finds this bit errow. ‘That’s come here in the nicht,’ says I, and I wunnered a wee and put it in my pouch. But when I came to my faulds what did I see? Five o’ my best hoggs were away, and three mair were lying deid wi’ a hole in their throat.”
“Who in the world — ?” I began.
“Dinna ask,” said he. “If I aince sterted to speir about thae maitters, I wadna keep my reason.”
“Then that was what happened on the hill this morning?”
“Even sae, and it has happened mair than aince sin’ that time. It’s the most uncanny slaughter, for sheep-stealing I can understand, but no this pricking o’ the puir beasts’ wizands. I kenna how they daett either, for it’s no wi’ a knife or ony common tool.”
“Have you never tried to follow the thieves?”
“Have I no?” he asked grimly. “If it had been common sheep stealers I wad hae had them by the heels, though I had followed them a hundred miles. But this is no common. I’ve tracked them, and it’s ill they are to track; but I never got beyond ae place, and that was the Scarts o’ the Muneraw that ye’ve heard me speak o’.”
“But who in Heaven’s name are the people? Tinklers or poachers or what?”
“Ay,” said he drily. “Even so. Tinklers and poachers whae wark wi’ stane errows and kill sheep by a hole in their throat. Lord, I kenna what they are, unless the Muckle Deil himsel’.”
The conversation had passed beyond my comprehension. In this prosaic hard-headed man I had come on the dead-rock of superstition and blind fear.
“That is only the story of the Brownie over again, and he is an exploded myth,” I said, laughing.
“Are ye the man that exploded it?” said the shepherd rudely. “I trow no, neither you nor ony ither. My bonny man, if ye lived a twalmonth in thae hills, ye wad sing safter about exploded myths, as ye call them.”
“I tell you what I would do,” said I. “If I lost sheep as you lose them, I would go up the Scarts of the Muneraw and never rest till I had settled the question once and for all.” I spoke hotly, for I was vexed by the man’s childish fear.
“I dare say ye wad,” he said slowly. “But then I am no you, and maybe I ken mair o’ what is in the Scarts o’ the Muneraw. Maybe I ken that whilk, if ye kenned it, wad send ye back to the South Country wi’ your hert in your mouth. But, as I say, I am no sae brave as you, for I saw something in the first year o’ my herding here which put the terror o’ God on me, and makes me a fearfu’ man to this day. Ye ken the story o’ the gudeman o’ Carrickfay?”
“Weel, I was the man that fand him. I had seen the deid afore and I’ve seen them since. But never have I seen aucht like the look in that man’s een. What he saw at his death I may see the morn, so I walk before the Lord in fear.”
Then he rose and stretched himself. “It’s bedding-time, for I maun be up at three,” and with a short good night he left the room.
* Eumenides — Greek deities of vengeance.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”