Review of “Basilissa” by John Buchan: Halloween Countdown

The orphan Vernon dreams, upsetting his nurse, Mrs. Ganthony. He tells no one what the dreams contain, for even he understands little. He only senses a Fear, a Something several rooms away.

When he is fifteen, he realizes the dream comes on the night of the first Monday in April. He also realizes the Something moves one room closer each year. Presently, it was about ten rooms away. He was thus comforted to some degree, understanding the mystery would end eventually. He would not struggle with it forever.

Years later, while recovering after a storm sailing around the Greek isles, Vernon and some friends come across an old white building. It appears to have been fortified in the past, perhaps once the home of some old Venetian sea-king. Vernon asks a local who lives there.

The man crosses himself and spits over the bow of his fishing vessel. “Basilissa,” he says.
Further explanation reveals this “Basilissa” (“Queen”) is a great witch, the Devil’s bride.
“In the old day in spring they made sacrifice to her, but they say her power is dying now. … We do not speak her name.”

This must be the Fear, the Something. It is now the first Monday in April. Vernon has to see this Basilissa for himself, Devil’s bride or not.


The dreaminess of Vernon’s early childhood forms a sharp contrast to the adventures of the latter part of the story. He seems to want to shake off the dreams. He trains to strengthen his body and keep himself fit.

However, the dream mechanism comes across as clumsy at points, particularly when the reader meets Basilissa. It reads almost like a superhero comic. Not that there’s anything wrong with superhero comics, but in the present context, the actions strain credulity.

The ending did not live up to the promise of the beginning of this story, a disappointment. Nevertheless, the story remains quite readable and ultimately sweet.

Author John Buchan was a Scottish novelist and politician who served in South Africa. He was eventually appointed governor of Canada. His most notable work is the adventure novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which Alfred Hitchcock later adapted for film.

As governor of Canada, Buchan, along with his wife, established the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which remain among the most prestigious Canadian awards for literature. They have expanded to include both English and French language works in seven categories each.

Title: “Basilissa”
Author: John Buchan (1875-1940)
First published: 1914 The Watcher by the Threshold 1918

The story is available here.


Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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