John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (and its multiple subsequent film and television versions) is likely the work most closely associated with his name.
But that’s largely because Hitchcock went and made a classic out of the adaptation in 1935, although, in fairness, it had also been popular as a serialized novel during its initial release in 1915. But this post is not about The Thirty-Nine Steps, as outstanding as that novel may be. Rather, let us shine a light on Buchan’s lesser-known, but substantial skill as a writer of the short supernatural tale.
Perhaps the word best suited for the atmosphere of Buchan’s forays into the fearful is “uncanny.” His protagonists often experience inexplicable situations and encounter mysterious, sometimes malicious forces at work in the world. As you’d expect, the terrors found in these stories are hardly garish, nor can they often even properly be called “ghosts”. What does tend to be consistent, however, is a strong sense of place, and the rugged moorlands of the British Isles - a favorite of Buchan’s - provide more than one tale with an atmospheric setting that greatly enhances the eerie events.
Combining his interest in philosophy with his clear fascination with myth and folklore, John Buchan penned many stories of the supernatural that were often subtle and routinely thought-provoking, aiming for more than a simple scare. But in addition to stories and novels, the prolific author wrote numerous nonfiction works and biographies throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So go ahead and enjoy The Thirty-Nine Steps...just don’t ignore the rest of the man’s career, especially his delightfully spooky tales.