clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Percy Fawcett’s Heart of Darkness

‘The Watcher,’ a 1982 horror novel, employs the ‘Lost City of Z’ hero as a symbol of self-destructive obsession

(Amazon/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Amazon/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

"Something hidden, go and find it," implores the narrator of Rudyard Kipling’s poem "The Explorer." Written in 1898, at the turn of a century whose technological advancements would literally and figuratively remap the borders of human civilization, "The Explorer" revels in the possibility of an undiscovered country.

In his 2005 New Yorker feature "The Lost City of Z," David Grann reveals that the famed British surveyor Percy Fawcett carried a copy of Kipling’s poem with him on his first trip to South America in 1906 and quotes diary entries indicating that he was very much in its thrall. "Deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling," Fawcett wrote. "At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it."

Fawcett’s kinship with Kipling is evoked by James Gray’s new film, The Lost City of Z, which hews closely to the narrative of Grann’s New Yorker article and his subsequent 2009 book of the same name. It tells the story of how Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was compelled to follow that tiny voice back to the Amazon on a series of expeditions in search of evidence of an ancient civilization — a venture that culminated in his disappearance in 1925. Despite its deluxe period-piece trappings — and a few unmistakable visual allusions to classic quest films like Lawrence of Arabia and Aguirre, the Wrath of God — Gray’s movie has the murky texture of a psychological thriller, using subtly surreal imagery to suggest that even when Fawcett isn’t literally in the Amazon, the jungle is on his mind.

As a study of obsession as self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s powerful stuff, although ultimately less disturbing than another, pulpier artwork that uses Fawcett’s story as a dramatic inspiration: British author Charles Maclean’s 1982 novel The Watcher, which happens to be the freakiest, scariest book that I’ve ever read — a lost genre classic worthy of rediscovery.

Before becoming a writer, Maclean was something of a wanderer, following in the footsteps of his father, the Scottish political operative Sir Fitzroy Maclean, a man whose cloak-and-dagger existence was supposedly one of inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The Watcher focuses on a character who seems to lack an adventurous spirit: Martin Gregory, a mild-mannered executive who lives in upstate New York with his wife Anna and their two long-haired golden retrievers. The book is divided into short chapters, the majority of which are either narrated by Martin or else marked as extracts from his diary. The startling act of violence that kick-starts the plot is described in the first person. After coming home early on the eve of Anna’s birthday, Martin murders the dogs, places them in a massive gift-wrapped box and flees the scene, after which he has horrifying visions of the end of the world.

The hook of The Watcher is that the protagonist doesn’t understand why he’s done such a terrible thing, and neither do we — until he enlists the help of a psychiatrist, a Dr. R.M. Somerville, who comes to suspect that the answer to Martin’s psychotic behavior lies somewhere in a past life. Or rather, lives: after using hypnosis to draw out Martin’s recollections of his crime, the doctor is intrigued to see his patient speak in a series of voices not his own, claiming himself to be a number of men living in different historical periods ranging from the Middle Ages to World War II to a primordial, creation-myth landscape out of Conan the Barbarian. The common denominator between these personas is a quest for something unattainable — a karmic journey towards enlightenment. In the longest and most detailed of the sessions, Martin imagines himself to be Percy Fawcett, insisting, despite the illness and despair that has consumed his expedition, that he is "so near to finding the way through" to the City of Z — and with it, the transcendence he’s been seeking.

At first, Martin is skeptical about Somerville’s methods, but quickly comes to believe that he does in fact contain multitudes. Around the same time, the psychiatrist modifies his position to say that the "past lives" are entirely Martin’s invention. One way to read The Watcher is as a tug-of-war between Jungian and Freudian psychology. Martin imagines himself as the proverbial hero with a thousand faces, a messiah charged with protecting humankind from disaster. Somerville sees him as a damaged man who’s devised an ingenious coping mechanism to manage his guilt over an atrocity committed in childhood.

What makes The Watcher so effective — Stephen King on his best day would be envious of Maclean’s ability to conjure up both a forbidding atmosphere of dread and the literary equivalent of jump scares — is that it staunchly refuses to clarify what’s going on. Either Martin is operating on a higher plane, or his brain is trying to keep him from facing the music. As a structural device for a thriller, this air of uncertainty is brilliant; as a meditation on repressed trauma and the mind’s capacity for self-preservation through self-delusion, it’s deeply, genuinely frightening. "Not a book for bedtime" was the verdict of Piers Paul Read, who, having written Alive, knows nightmares.

Considering its critical acclaim, I’ve always wondered why The Watcher was never made into a movie when so many lesser genre novels have had the honor. The book was reissued in 2012 after a long period out of print, and Maclean — who is now best known as one of the U.K.’s foremost experts on whiskey — even speculated about its cinematic potential (although his chosen director, Alfred Hitchcock, would have had to do his work from beyond the grave).

In a 2010 interview, Russell "Highlander" Mulcahy revealed that he’d bought the rights to the book and was trying to develop a screenplay, but to no avail, calling it "very strange, warped" story that was "very hard to bring into a film format." (Considering its epic sweep and multiple embedded narratives, it’s probably better suited to being a miniseries.)

As The Watcher progresses and Martin tries to corroborate his past existences, he ventures out into the world and becomes an explorer, plunging into caves and crevices to seek out and retrieve the magical talisman that his predecessors — Fawcett among them — could never quite locate. Maclean, whose 1978 nonfiction book The Wolf Children investigated a story of feral foundlings in India in the early 20th century that was described by many as a real-life Jungle Book, was surely familiar with Kipling’s writing, and in addition to its tribute to Percy Fawcett and "The Lost City of Z," The Watcher contains an unmistakable homage to "The Explorer" — one crucial section is titled "Something Hidden."

It’s rare that a horror novel combines a genuine literary pedigree with the capacity to scare readers out of their wits, but The Watcher is just such a rarity. Go out and find it.