Monday, November 10, 2014

Fear Itself

Fear bills itself as a "novel of suspense," a chiller, a horror story.  We're supposed to enjoy our reactions to all the... uh, scariness, instead of spending too much time or effort trying to figure out whether Lowry's being bedeviled by devils or be-malaria'd by malaria.  The questions about the cause are less important than the effects, in other words.  You could, for example, put some thought into puzzling out how the Overlook Hotel works, but it's fully possible to enjoy The Shining without doing so.  The characters in that story certainly aren't worried about why the hotel is full of bad juju, they just want to survive.

The problem is, Fear is a horror story built around a specific question: what happened to Lowry's hat?  I mean, his lost four hours.  All the supernatural "spooky" stuff is merely the window dressing for Lowry's quest to discover what he did that Saturday afternoon.  And as a mystery covered in Halloween decorations, Fear is a disappointment.

There is such a thing as a "Fair Play" Whodunit, a mystery that is solvable using the clues presented in the story.  Fear obviously isn't one, since it bombs the very first requirement, that the reader never hears the thoughts of the killer.  But the real big annoyance is Mary, and specifically how the reveal at the end relates to her.

See, Hubbard is competent enough to sprinkle little hints that Lowry might have a "motive" to kill his wife over the course of the story - the flashes of jealousy, the revelation that Tommy tried to woo her before she picked Lowry, which Lowry hasn't quite gotten over.  But then Hubbard cheats.  We never get anything that would place Mary at the scene of the crime, and Lowry has no choice but to completely forget that he has an upcoming birthday, just to ensure that the reader wouldn't be able to guess that Mary was at Tommy's house that afternoon to plan a surprise party.

It's sort of like, spoiler warning, if Shyamalan had cut the opening bit in The Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis gets shot so we couldn't guess that he actually died from his wound and was a ghost for the rest of the movie.  If we found out that Willis was dead at the same time we learned he'd gotten shot in the first place, do you think Sixth Sense would be remembered for having one of the greatest twist endings in cinema?  Or would Shyamalan's reputation have never risen high enough for his subsequent movies to ruin?

And what about the jealous, malaria-fueled murder itself?  Did we get any foreshadowing that would help us anticipate that?  There was that bit about Lowry breaking a window as a kid, but do we ever see him reacting aggressively to nasty shocks?  Quite the contrary.  Even though he eventually girds his loins to confront his fear and solve the mystery of his hat, the book basically boils down to Lowry running away from the things he encounters while attempting to do so.  Well, Lowry is aggressive for that one part in the end where he tries to defeat Tommy and steal his essence back, but that ends with Lowry getting his ass kicked.  It certainly isn't something that suggests Lowry could subdue and axe-murder two adults.

The author at least makes some effort to foreshadow Mary and Tommy's fate, and not just through Lowry's hallucinations of Mary crying his name.  Lowry never actually eats anything Mary prepares for him over the course of the story, he either fixes himself a sandwich or experiences wobbling plates whenever he tries to spear a meal with his fork, forcing him to go to he diner.  Lowry gives an excuse for Mary's absence in church on Sunday, and when she and Tommy visit his office on Monday, nobody else is around to see or react to them.

But what about Tommy?  Did anyone give Lowry strange looks when he came in to church, sat down on a pew with a large space around him, repeatedly looked at nothing off to one side of him, and then walked out while clutching at nothing all the way home?  The author doesn't say.  The author can't say, it might spoil the surprise.  And that's kinda cheaty.

So Fear the mystery is a disappointment, is what I'm getting at.  Whether Fear the horror story works for you will probably depend on your tastes.  As I said before, I feel Fear's at its best when it's building up to the what it thinks is scary, like with that nightmare sequence after Lowry comes home from Tommy's house.  It's comparatively restrained, more psychological, more authentically dream-like.  But dreams aren't necessarily scary - Lowry just kinda rolls with the dream-logic when conversing with a knight in full plate, or a stereotypical witch.  And when it's time to unleash the scares, all Hubbard has for us are a hangman, or blood on the floor, or fake vampire teeth in people's mouths.

I guess that could be scary, if Fear is your first horror novel, and you've never watched TV or a movie.  But compared to the works of HP Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe, two phenomenal American horror writers who came before this "classic" of the genre, Fear comes across as pretty juvenile.  Seriously, an invisible something brushing the narrator's leg?  Disembodied laughter?  A high-speed factory assembly?  A street full of movie set buildings?  A world full of Tommy? 

We could nitpick over whether malaria could really addle someone enough to kill their wife and best friend in a jealous frenzy, or the plausibility of someone mentally deleting their memory of that murder and going on to hallucinate his victims so he'd never suspect they were dead, but it's not really important.  The bottom line is, Fear succeeds as a horror story about as well as Battlefield Earth succeeds as a sci-fi epic, and Fear's mystery elements are about as well-presented as the "romance" in Mission Earth.

Back to Chapter 8, part 2

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fear - Chapter 8, Part 2 - Aftermath

Let's have ourselves a shocking climax, shall we?

Lowry continues to stumble through the twilight, bedeviled by the visages of the other two principal characters as they appear on the faces of the nameless masses.

He fled past other pedestrians, and each one that looked at him was possessed of the face of either Tommy or Mary.  And after a little they began to call to him at intervals.

"Hello, Jim," said Tommy in mockery each time.

"Oh, it's you, Jim," said Mary.

The last two sentences will be repeated five times over the rest of the chapter, and boy howdy, each repetition is more terrifying than the last, let me tell ya.

It's getting darker, and alternatively warmer and colder (remember: not malaria), and Lowry feels that furry thing brushing past his legs, and sees all manner of spooky shapes in the shadows.  He even thinks he sees "a scaly thing dissolve an instant late" as he steps down from a curb, presumably an alligator in the sewer.  And the author's just throwing everything at us, isn't he?  Like the climax of The Shining, except with less blood gushing out of an elevator, inexplicable men in dog suits performing implied oral sex on other men, or Jack Nicholson. 

Then Lowry sees Tommy's face again, but disembodied this time, a thin and blurry image against the darkness that still manages to smile slyly at him.  And then he sees a beckoning figure that he recognizes as Mary, though her face is still scornful.  "Hello, Jim," "Oh, it's you, Jim."  A shadow "like spread wings" falls over the town.  And there's bats!  Bats are scary, right?  Might wanna turn on a strobe light too and put on some pipe organ music, Hubbard.

We're almost done.  Lowry continues to follow the vision of Mary, and smells some recognizable odors - the scent of Mary's perfume, mixed with Tommy's exotic tobacco.  He pauses on the stone bridge by the church and sees a figure in a black cloak and broad hat sitting on the other side, braiding a rope.  "Jack Ketch!" Lowry doesn't scream - instead he knows he'll rest a bit before walking over to this "man of darkness."  How about that.

But before he can do so...

He caught a glimpse of something white in the water and leaned a trifle farther, not particularly interested in the fact that it was a reflection of his own face in the black mirror surface below.  He watched the image grow clearer, watched his own eyes and mouth take form.  It was as if he was seeing himself down there, a self far more real than this self leaning against cold stone.  Idly he beckoned to the image.  It seemed to grow nearer.  He beckoned again in experiment.  It was nearer still.

With sudden determination he held out both hands to it.  It was gone from the water, but it was not gone.

Like a chicken that was not a chicken.

After seizing his reflection, Lowry stands up straight, and takes a deep breath.  He looks across the bridge and sees Old Billy Watkins the policeman, smoking his pipe.  Lowry walks across that bridge "with a feeling that was almost triumph, for all the weight of sorrow within him," greets Billy pleasantly, and asks if he'll follow him somewhere.  Old Billy's a smart guy, and after sensing Lowry's mood knows that it's time to keep quiet and see where Lowry takes him.

Lowry leads Billy to Tommy's house, which is dark and quiet but seems "to be waiting for them."  He asks the policeman to unlock the front door, since the mansion only has a common lock that patrolling cops ought to have the key for.  I guess back in those days it was only possible to make so many types of keys?  Or law enforcement was given duplicate keys to upper-class homes as a sign of trust, or to help with security?  It's not really important, we might as well say Billy was able to force the door with his police training for all it changes the story.

When they step into the mansion, Lowry points out two things near the door: a lady's handbag, and a hat initialed "J. L."  Lowry, his voice quiet and controlled, leads Officer Billy past a living room containing a broken chair and upset ash tray, and a kitchen with a broken window.  There's a spooky mewling sound, and Lowry opens a basement door to let a half-mad cat bolt to freedom.  Then he and Billy descend the steps.

Hopefully Mr. Akira Yamaoka won't mind if I borrow some of his music one last time to help with the mood.

Jim fumbled for the basement light.  For a moment it seemed that he would not turn it on, but that was only for a moment. 

Oh, my pounding heart.  Truly this work is by a master of suspense.

The naked bulb flooded the basement and filled it with sharp, swinging shadows.

A crude hole had been dug in the middle of the dirt floor and a shovel was abandoned beside it.

Jim Lowry took hold of the light cord and lifted it so that the rays would stream into the coal bin.

An ax, black with blood, pointed its handle at them.  From the coal protruded a white something.

Old Billy stepped to the dark, dusty pile and pushed some of the lumps away.  A small avalanche rattled, disclosing the smashed and hacked face of Tommy Williams.  To his right, head thrown back, staring eyes fixed upon the fingers and blood-caked arm out flung, lay the body of Mary, Jim Lowry's wife.

Officer Billy stares at Lowry for several minutes, before the professor, in a monotone, explains what happened.   He did the fell deed the Saturday afternoon he met with Tommy, and came back that night to find the evidence he left behind - his hat - and to dispose of the bodies.  And then he came back again Sunday for whatever reason, but he'd lost the key so he had to break the kitchen window.  And at some point in the process of removing his hat from the premises, he left that hat on the hat rack in the front hall.  Good grief, Lowry, even as a murderer you're terrible.

Jim Lowry sank down upon a box and hid his face in his palms.  "I don't know why I did it.  Oh, God, forgive me, I don't know why.  I found her here, hiding, after I had found her hat.  Everything was whirling and I couldn't hear what they kept screaming at me and... and I killed them."  A sob shook him.  "I don't know why.  I don't know why she was here... I don't know why I could not reason.... cerebral malaria... jealous madness-"

So the super twist ending is that Lowry does, in fact, have malaria, something he's been underplaying and ignoring for the entire book?

As for why Mary was at Tommy's house, Officer Billy finds a note to "Tommy Old Sport" from her explaining that she wants to give Lowry a surprise birthday party next week, so she needs his help making a list of people to invite and which rum to get.  On the bright side, it looks like Lowry was definitely not expecting a birthday party, so mission accomplished, Mary.

Somewhere high above, there seemed to hang a tinkle of laughter: high, amused laughter, gloating and mocking and evil.

Of course, though, it was probably just the sigh of wind whining below the cellar door. 

Ah-ha!  It's the demons that gave Lowry malaria!

And that's Fear.  A story about a skeptic with malaria who refuses to recover from his illness, wanders around town hallucinating, and I guess murders his wife and best friend while they were trying to decide what kind of booze to get for a party.  I suppose it's up to the reader to decide whether a tropical illness was to blame for Lowry's behavior, or if he really was bedeviled by vengeful spirits who could only affect him while he had a tropical illness.

But if you think the plot's settled, here's a spine-chilling riddle to enjoy this Halloween.  If Lowry's hat was waiting for him inside a locked mansion, whose hat did he pull down over his eyes when he passed Mary on the way to that mansion? 

Back to Chapter 8, part 1

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fear - Chapter 8, Part 1 - Replica

Last time, on Fear!  The Entity, Jim Lowry, got curbstomped by the leader of the others, Tommy Williams.  Tommy stole another batch of Jim's essence, which is not homosexual innuendo but the theft of the motive force that allows Lowry to animate the puppets around him, thereby creating the illusion that he is not the only true human on the planet.  Other than Tommy, evidently.  Anyway, the stakes are high, because if Tommy manages to defeat the Entity, then... well, Lowry would be all alone in a world full of lifeless not-people.  Who would he talk to?  Who would cook his supper?

After his nap beneath a bush, Lowry wakes up at dusk, feeling cold, stiff and somewhat confused - and before you even ask, it isn't the malaria.  If this story started blaming things on some tropical fever it'd be one chapter long and Lowry would spend the whole time in bed.

For a moment he could not recall the events which had passed, and he came to his knees, aware of a thing he must do but not quite able to place it.  This lethargy!  Was it affecting his brain as well?

But no, his brain was all right.  Yes!  Tommy and Mary and the world of the apparent dead!

And what a tremendous amount of good that rest had done him.  Or else- 

His train of thought derails when Lowry sees some people walking by, and quickly realizes that this must mean that Tommy is nearby, motivating them with Lowry's own stolen essence.  And if Lowry can take advantage of that essence, he might have a shot at taking down Tommy.  Y'know, since the last attempt went so well.

So Lowry lurks in the shadows by the street, waiting for his nemesis, wondering whether, if Tommy succeeds in stealing all of Lowry's essence, Lowry himself will march along with all the other puppets as they go through their "make-believe lives."  He spots a man on the corner and goes up to ask him if he knows where Tommy is, but Lowry finds that it is Tommy, mocking smile and sly look in the eye and everything!

Lowry wastes no time and springs into action, leaping toward his foe and - oh.  Uh, he doesn't do that.  Instead he spins around and runs away as fast as he can.  Well.  Guess he can look forward to being a puppet.

He only stops fleeing when he doesn't hear any sign of pursuit, and Lowry turns to sees the man on the corner looking back at him, to the sound of "light, cheerful laughter."  The author doesn't specify whether the man looks like a normal puppet or still has Tommy's face, which I think is a bit of an oversight.

Anyway, Lowry wonders if he should try a different approach, maybe turn the tables by sneaking up on Tommy when he's sneaking.  He inexplicably feels the urge to consult a random stranger about this plan, even though of course such a stranger is merely a puppet motivated by Tommy, which sounds like a bit of a security risk.  Whatever, Lowry walks up to a guy watering his lawn and "It was Tommy!"

And then he runs away again to the sound of "light laughter."  You could say that we have a running gag on our hands.

Lowry forces himself to slow down, and the narration claims that he is "stubbornly refusing to be panicked" despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There was no use losing his head, for he still had a chance.  Not everyone could be Tommy.

I may have a new favorite line from this book.  "Okay, so two of the people I tried to talk to turned into my best friend/nemesis, but surely not everyone out there will do that."

To maximize his odds, Lowry decides to run up to a woman next, and indeed she doesn't turn into Tommy - she turns into Mary.  For a moment Lowry thinks he'll be able to plead with her now that she's alone, but Mary only looks at him with scorn, turns her back, and walks away.  "It took Lowry some seconds to get over that," poor guy.

Unwilling to admit defeat - at least when it comes to talking to people, Lowry has been quite happy to turn tail and run from his enemies - our hero walks up to a group of students to talk to them about how he's gonna sneak up on his friend and steal his essence back.  But confound it, they all turn into Tommy too!  So Lowry once again bravely runs away.  He sees a woman, Mary of course, sitting nearby, but Lowry is so defeated that he only "pulled his hat ashamedly down over his eyes and slouched by and then-"


When did Lowry get his hat back?

He was hatless just a few hours ago, in the last chapter, when the sexy little four-year-old taunted him about it.  His wife nagged him about leaving home without a hat at the start of the day.  The missing status of Lowry's hat has in fact been a crucial component of this book's, for lack of a better word, plot.  And he can't be wearing his hat now because Lowry will... well, we'll find out soon enough.

So wow.  Hubbard wrote a story about a guy missing his hat and accidentally put it on his head during the search for it.  The one detail it'd be pretty important to keep straight, and whoops!  I guess Lowry's hat was on his head all along!  No wonder he never found it!  No wonder everyone thinks he's crazy!

Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion to I Want My Hat Back.

Back to Chapter 7, part 3

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fear - Chapter 7, Part 3 - Epicenter

So last time we learned that Jim Lowry is the Entity, the one true living man, the motive force powering everything and everyone around him.  And his "best friend" Tommy has really been leading the others the whole time, and is even stealing Lowry's soul!  And that the only thing worse than a sexualized tweenager is a sexualized four-year-old, thank you very much, Hubbard.

Lowry's still shaken by all these revelations, and leaves his office at noon out of force of habit more than anything else.  But while he's doused with dread from all this weirdness, he also feels strangely liberated, invincible even.

It was not unlike a religious fanatic's trust in a personally invested god, a thing which seemed very foreign to Lowry.  And as he walked through the hurrying crowds of students in the halls and down the stairs, he began to be conscious of his own size and strength.

"I, a rugged, adventurous thirty-eight-year-old, could beat the crap out of any of these kids!"  I'm not exaggerating much: Lowry sizes up some oncoming athletes and is pleased when he realizes he's both taller and heavier than they are.

Odd he had never taken that personal quality of his into account.  It was like finding a gold mine or having a beautiful woman suddenly confess her love, or hearing a million people stand up and cheer themselves into exhaustion for one.

Raw gold, hot women (in love with you and presumably willing to have sex, not necessarily you being in love with them), and the howling adoration of the masses - these are a few of Hubbard's favorite things.

But this book isn't called I'm Huge and Powerful, so scary things need to happen.  Lowry passes a student who - oh, this is a great sentence - has parked himself on the steps "so that the penetrating languor of sunlight could caress his back," which is a purple way of saying he's taking advantage of a handy sunbeam.  But when Lowry draws closer, ominous strings, he discovers that the kid's newspaper is totally blank, scare chord.

Lowry is troubled for all of a few seconds, but the exercise of walking restores that invincible feeling quickly, and "he gradually forgot" about the incident.  He passes some more people doing mundane things, but then Lowry gets a "strange feeling" and turns around.  And for the briefest fraction of a second, it seems to him that a kid delivering an envelope, a guy mowing the lawn, and a crowd of chatting students, had all paused before continuing.

Which is creepy from a purely visual standpoint, but doesn't Lowry have ears?  Wouldn't he have noticed if the conversation suddenly stopped, or the lawnmower ceased movement?

Anyway, this incident provokes some thought as Lowry continues, and he wonders if his imagination is throwing up some false memories or something.  This is a bit odd coming from someone who, you might remember, had a chat with a little creepy girl who emerged from cracks in the wall and a chorus of disembodied, snarling voices just a few pages ago.  At any rate, Old Billy Watkins pops by again to ask if Lowry's feeling better, and Lowry thanks him for his concern.

And then there's a random break in the paragraphs, before Lowry gets that odd feeling again, and looks back over his shoulder.  Sure enough, Old Billy is standing "limp as a scarecrow" for an instant before continuing on his way.  "That was very strange, thought Lowry," who just last night followed a Spanish ghost up a sheer cliff and into a dark and bloody temple dedicated to pinching women's hinders.

Good news is, the book's almost over, so we won't have to put up with Lowry for much longer.

This terrifying game of Red Light, Green Light continues when Lowry reaches the cafe frequented by the faculty, and sure enough he opens the door to "Silence.  But only for an instant" before the sound of conversation and cutlery hitting crockery kicks up.  He chats with some nameless other professors who share their sympathies over Lowry's sacking, which Lowry repays with stories from his expedition to the scorching Yucatán Desert.  He's suffused with a feeling of "allness" at the end of his meal, the knowledge that he's improved his friendships with all these people.  Or maybe it's the chicken salad sandwich.

At any rate, the only downer is that when Lowry tried to listen to a conversation from a table behind him, he heard nonsense, not words, almost as though everyone else in the diner, and indeed the world, are automatons that exist to create the illusion that Lowry, the only real person on the planet, is not alone.

There's a particularly cheap attempt at a scare when Lowry leaves the diner and sees two drivers slumped over the wheels of their cars - "These people must be dead!" - but of course they're just off for a split-second before Lowry's presence enables them to move.  When he looks back at the diner everyone's similarly slumped over until Lowry takes a step toward them, and then when he tries to buy a newspaper he finds that they're all blank, but neither the vendor or other customers seem to notice.  What a bother.

Lowry abruptly decides to go visit a stream he remembers from his youth, because I think at this point, the author has stopped trying to build a coherent narrative and is just throwing in whatever spooky ideas he's come up with over the course of the train ride he allegedly wrote this book on.  So off Lowry goes, deciding that the recent stop-go weirdness is his weary brain taking a moment to register events instead of processing them instantaneously.  When he gets to that refreshing stream, cool grass and swaying willows, Lowry remembers that it was all bulldozered to make way for a cellulose factory, but stretches out on the grass anyway without a second thought.  Guy can only try and rationalize only so much weirdness in a day, I suppose.

So Lowry spend some time next to the pool with the "City Water Supply.  Do Not Contaminate" sign that he routinely ignored by swimming in it (eww), and finds himself reminiscing about his past self and his old awe of his father.  Would you like an utterly random paragraph about aging?

The thought amused him that he was the image of his own early awe, and he dwelt at length upon what he would have said to the boy in overalls who had lain long hours in this very spot, how he would have told him that the mystery of the elder world was no mystery at all, but an uncertain sort of habit of dignity, perhaps grown out of the image of youth, perhaps as an excuse for diminished physical vigor, perhaps as a handy shield by which one could hold off the world.  How little that boy need have worried, after all.  The state of being "grown up" was a state beset by as many worries, and just as false, as those of childhood.

It looks like as early as 1940, Hubbard really wanted to be a philosopher.  Alas, he's stuck for now/then conveying his thoughts through lousy fiction, rather than... well, I guess the last books he wrote were also lousy fiction filled with author tracts.  And then there's the whole "space opera is the genetic memory of Scientology's backstory" thing.  So I guess whatever Hubbard did had an element of lousy fiction to it.

Anyway, Lowry's reverie is interrupted by a hammering sound and the roaring of truck engines, and things get goofy.  He looks up to see two hundred workers rushing about at high speed, constructing a factory "a foot at a time," so that before his very eyes the cellulose factory is thrown up and the peaceful stream of his youth is torn down.  "The plant was going full blast.  The willows had vanished.  The stream of yesterday was a concrete aqueduct!"

When a dazed Lowry turns and goes back to down, he starts to feel "a nausea of concern" about this.  Suddenly suspicious, he takes a back alley to a street he's never visited, and dammit, all the houses are false fronts, just like a movie set!  All the "extras" are even flummoxed that Lowry's back where he shouldn't be, and try to hastily finish the houses!

This is so ridiculous that even had the rest of the book been properly scary, this little moment would've undone it.  It's like Gris' hallucinations with Bugs Bunny in Mission Earth, something so jarringly out-of-tune with the rest of the narrative that it all comes to a crashing halt.

I think we can learn something from this.  A common argument about Mission Earth is that its badness resulted from Hubbard being insulated from criticism by his followers, sort of like George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, except in Hubbard's case it was a literal cult following.  But this book, written near the start of his career and before Hubbard went off the deep end, has no such excuse.  It was written, it was edited, and it's still not very good.

Lowry returns to Main Street, but there's that cry of  "Jim!  Jim!  Jim!  Oh, my God!  Jim!"  Everyone on the street is sprawled out on the ground, while Mary is running along with her hair and eyes wild, sobbing in terror.  When she sees him she leaps into his arms and cries with relief, and Lowry holds her tight, stroking her hair as the rest of the townspeople return to life around them, and I can't help but feel this scene would be a lot more effective if we'd cut to it straight after the diner, before the silly things happened.

And then Tommy swaggers up, and we get our climactic confrontation.  Or something.

"Hello, Jim."  And then, in concern, "Is something wrong with Mary?"

"You know what's wrong with Mary, Tom Williams."

Tommy looked at him oddly.  "I don't get you, old man."

"Not that you wouldn't try," said Jim with a cold grin at his own humor.  "I've had enough of this."

"Enough of what?"

"You took something from me.  I want it back.  I know about this, you see." 

Lowry wastes no words, and outright accuses Tommy of being a thief, of stealing a part of Lowry that made everything right with the world.  Tommy laughs that his "friend" has finally caught on, but, fangs extended, explains his more "communistic attitude" towards... chunks of Lowry, I guess.  Soul stuff?  Animus? 

Terminology later, fight scene now.  Lowry gets Mary out of the way and grabs hold of Tommy's coat... no, wait, you should see this.

Lowry put Mary to one side.  He snatched out and grabbed Tommy's coat and hauled him close, aiming a blow.  Somehow, Tommy twisted from the grasp and, in his turn, struck hard with his cane.  For an instant the world, for Lowry, was ink.  But he came up in an effort to lunge at Tommy's throat.  Again the cane felled him.  Stunned now, he swayed on his hands and knees, trying to clear his fogged senses.  Once more the cane struck him and he felt the pavement strike against his cheek.

See?  It's a fight scene, but it isn't a Hubbard Fight Scene.  It's all contained in a single paragraph, and there isn't an exclamation point to be found! 

And... I dunno, as overused and annoying as the Hubbard Fight Scenes got, I think this is actually a case where one would work.  Breaking up the flow of the narrative after Lowry gets clonked on the head would help emphasize the impact, har har, of the blow.  This is the big, climactic showdown between the Entity and the leader of the "others," two people who thought they were friends, not the nth "Jettero Heller curbstomps someone" scene.  This is the one fight you can really afford to draw out, break down, make it a blow-by-blow event.

Well, Lowry ends up like Senator Sumner and is lying there, unable to move, feeling like he's bleeding to death.  Fanged Tommy leans in close to smirk at him, seeming "twice as big and strong as before."  Then Mary looks at Tommy, and Lowry watches her face change from an expression of wonder to "agreeable satisfaction," and she and Tommy walk away, arm-in-arm.

Lowry knows why.

She was nothing but a puppet herself, animated more than any of the rest because she had been more with a source.  And when Tommy had taken part of him she had begun to divide her attention between them, for either one could animate her.  And now that Tommy possessed an "allness" there could be no question as to which one she would follow.

Strangely, realizing that his wife is but a puppet doesn't seem to affect Lowry's affection for her.  He still rushed to comfort her when she was spazzing her way down the street, and he still wants to get her back from Tommy.  Then again, maybe Lowry wants her back because she's his puppet, thank you very much.

There's another effect of Lowry's defeat - now that Tommy has stolen his essence or whatever, all the other puppets around him aren't motivated by his presence, and are only twitching slightly instead of moving again.  Or in other words, "For him the world was nearly dead!"

So between the nearly-dead world, Mary being stolen from him, Tommy's betrayal, and getting his ass kicked and soul siphoned, Lowry's in pretty bad shape.

It was agony to drag himself along, but he did, inch by inch, fumbling over the bodies which lay sprawled in the clear sunlight. He became aware of how hot it was getting and of a great weariness. If he could just rest for a little while, he might be able to find strength. He saw a bush in a yard where the cover was thick and he crawled into the coolness. Just to rest a little while and then to find Tommy and Mary!

Or maybe it's the malaria.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fear - Chapter 7, Part 2 - Guidance

So last time Lowry heard a voice but found no one else in his office with him, but now he's going to take a closer look and find someone after all.  A cracked section of the plaster wall near his desk transforms from meaningless lines into the shape of a face, then a body that soon steps out of the wall.

"I would dislike frightening you," said the high, musical voice.

The thing looked like a child not more than four years old, a little girl with long blond curls and shapely, dimpled limbs.  

Well, hey, "shapely" technically means "pleasing to look at," it's not necessarily sexual-

She was dressed in a frilled frock, all clean and white, and a white bow was slightly to one side of her head.  Her face was round and beautiful, but it was a strange kind of beauty, not altogether childish; the eyes were such a dark blue they were almost black, and deep in them was an expression which was not an innocent child's, but more a lascivious wanton's; the lips were full and rich and slightly parted, as though to bestow a greedy lover's kiss.  


And like an aura a black shadow stood in globular shape about her.  

I bet her soul is as red as a ground cherry, too.

But at a casual, swift glance, it was a little child, no more than four, naive and full of laughter.  The lewd eyes lingered caressingly upon Lowry's face as she perched herself upon the top of his desk.

At least we've answered a lingering question from Mission Earth: "how could we make Teenie worse?"  And the answer is of course to "make her a four-year-old hellspawn."

Teenier and Lowry have a nice, disturbing chat.  He asks what she is, she assures him that she's just a child, of course, and proceeds to get distracted by his handsomeness so that "A dreamy look came into her eyes and her small pink tongue flicked out to dampen her lips convulsively."  When Lowry gets her back on track, she asks again whether Lowry really wants to find his hat, and he emphatically says nope.  Remember that heroic resolve Lowry was filled with a chapter or two ago, as he strode off into the night to fight the madness and find what he lost?  Lowry doesn't.

After spending some time stretching "langoriously" and licking her quivering lips with her pink tongue, Teenier gets to business: if Lowry will stop denying she and others like her exist, and agrees to aid them against the "others," she'll give him some exposition.  Lowry wearily nods his agreement.

So Teenier tells him a story.  Tommy was indeed correct that Lowry's article has angered a group of supernatural beings who inexplicably chose a four-year-old harlot as their herald.  And this is all according to some vague prophecy or schedule where they periodically "even up accounts" with humanity.  But to do this they need a person, someone "invested with control" - an Entity. 

"That is what we mean by 'Entity,' Mr. Lowry.  You are the Entity, the center of control.  Usually all life, at fleeting instants, takes turns in passing this along.  Now perhaps you have, at one time in your life, had a sudden feeling, 'I am I?'  Well, that awareness of yourself is akin to what men call godliness.  For an instant nearly every living thing in this world has been the one Entity, the focal point for all life. It is like a torch being passed from hand to hand.  Usually, innocent little children such as myself are invested, and so it is that a child ponders much upon his own identity."

So when Lowry is sick and feverish, doubting his senses, hallucinating disturbing phenomenon, and generally having a miserable time being himself, this is when he's wholly in touch with his identity?  This is when he's the center of control?

"What are you trying to tell me?"

"Why," she said demurely, "I am telling you that this is a period when we choose an Entity and invest that function in just one man.  Your Tommy Williams, I believe, knows about it.  So long as you live, then the world is animated.  So long as you walk and hear and see, the world goes forward.  In your immediate vicinity, you understand, all life is concentrating upon demonstrating that it is alive.  It is not.  Others are only props for you.  This would have happened to you a long time ago, but it was difficult to achieve communication with you.  You are the Entity, the only living thing in this world."

Ladies and gentlemen, behold The Sociopath's Anthem.  You are the only true human, the only living person, in all the world.  All those things that look like people are nothing but objects, props that exist for your benefit.  They have no value, and only pretend to be alive because your presence validates them.

Disturbing sentiments, but not quite as disturbing as the sultry four-year-old.  The globe of darkness pulses around Teenier as she gives Lowry lusty looks once more.  Lowry asks what he's supposed to do with this information, or what they are expecting from him as the Entity, and is told - nothing.  By which I mean:

"What... what am I expected to do?" said Lowry.

"Why, nothing.  You are the Entity."

"H-he-e i-is-s t-th-he-e E-En-n-ti-it-ty!" growled a chorus of voices in other parts of the room.

Yeah, that isn't working for me, Hubbard.  I know it's supposed to be a Voice of the Legion effect, but it reads like a stutter. 

Anyway, they just want Lowry to know he's the Entity so he won't do anything rash, like... uh, they're trying to reassure him.  Lowry is afraid of Tommy, and Jebson, and Billy Watkins the nightwatchman, but as said earlier, they're all just props.  All he has to do is be the Entity and continue to motivate the props around him, and... and this helps them "even up accounts" with humans by...

Look, there was a prophecy, alright?

Lowry asks, if Tommy is indeed a prop that he himself motivates, how Tommy was able to lean over and do something to Lowry that morning, or why he has fangs.  Teenier doesn't take this well.

"Oh!" she cried in shocked pain.  "Then it is impossible!"

"I-it-t i-is-s i-im-mp-po-os-si-i-b-bl-le-e !" chorused the growls.

So on the one hand, it is sort of a relief to learn that there are dark forces tormenting you, rather than your misfortune being due to the randomness of an impartial universe.  On the other hand, it's not very comforting to know that those dark forces are just as inept as the guys who get your order wrong at the drive-thru.

Teenier declares that Tommy Williams is the leader of the others, and even though "There's nothing you can do," Lowry must somehow "settle accounts" with him.  When Lowry caught Tommy leaning over his bed, Tommy stole part of his "soul substance," and he'll continue to do so every time the two of them are in the same room, unless Lowry stops him.

Our protagonist quite reasonably asks how he's supposed to do any of this, but Teenier is already gone, and her dark aura shrinks until it has become "like a small, round black thing" before vanishing like "a smoke puff."  And that's exactly how you defuse unnerving events with badly chosen language.

Lowry calls out once more, but there's nothing else in the room with him but a section of cracked plaster that no longer resembles anything.  He buries his face in his arms, presumably out of confusion and annoyance.

Well, we sure learned a lot from this section.  There's an ancient conspiracy of demons that has a vague prophecy about an Entity who doesn't have to do anything, but which can be foiled by some others toward some unforeseen end.  The plot is thickening, maybe?

Nah.  There's less than thirty pages left in the story, and none of this matters in the slightest.

Back to Chapter 7, part 1

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fear - Chapter 7, Part 1 - Contact

And now Lowry's in his office, waiting, thinking, waxing philosophical.

It seemed to him, as he thought about it, that man's lot seems to be a recanting of statement and prejudice; those things which he most wildly vows he will not do are those things which, eventually, he must do; those beliefs which are the most foreign to his nature are eventually thrust down his throat by a malignant fate.  To think that he, James Lowry, ethnologist, would ever come near a recognition of extra-sensory forces-- Well, here he was, waiting.

"It seemed to him that it seems," ugh.  And too many semicolons.  And this is also kinda strange coming from an author who later told people he could free them from the negative influence of extra-sensory forces, allowing them to alter their fate.  Maybe Professor Lowry can be considered an object lesson of what happens when you don't use Dianetics?

Lowry paces restlessly, killing time by examining the boxes of artifacts and knickknacks from the Yucatán that are still cluttering up his office.  The first one he opens is, naturally, a "fossilized" skull found near a sacrificial block.  Now you and I know that fossils are the petrified remains of ancient creatures, arbitrarily defined as at least 10,000 years old but usually much older, but of course a trained scholar like Lowry can be forgiven for misusing the term.

He didn't so much as blink when he was digging this fellow's head from the ground, but now the sight makes Lowry shudder, which he puts down to seeing his own grave last night.  He starts to obsess over the fact that, since the death date on his tombstone was 1940, he has at most a matter of months left to live.  But on the bright side, "he had found rest from his torment."  ...Uh, I'm not sure who he's referring to here, Future Lowry?  Present Lowry certainly isn't having fun.

And then Tommy walks in, and of course Lowry sees "the malevolent smile and those yellow fangs" on his friend's face until he's actually looking directly at it and Tommy becomes normal.  That Tommy, what a prankster.

Tommy offers to have the Chemistry department send down some nitroglycerin(?!) if Lowry wants it, since many from his last class are now "walking around muttering to themselves about devils and demons," and one student has nearly had a nervous breakdown.  Now, do you think this is due to the subject of Lowry's lecture, or the fact that for the first time in years he's broken from the script and said something that got his class' attention?  

His friend asks what's up, and Lowry confesses that he's still bedeviled by phantoms.  Tommy thinks he's being quite calm about it, Lowry replies that "A man can get used to anything."  The office door opens again and Mary walks in, oblivious to any student disruption, but looking a bit nervous that she might be responsible for her husband's odd behavior over the past few days - or so the narration tells us, I'm not sure how Lowry knows this.  She asks for a check for groceries and clothes, Lowry gladly gives it to her, she kisses him and leaves with Tommy.

Was it some sort of sensory illusion that caused Lowry to momentarily feel fangs in her mouth? Was it some way the light fell upon her face that made him see those fangs? Was it a natural jealousy which made him believe she looked lovingly at Tommy as they went out of the door?

Has Lowry just forgotten that he's suffering from severe stress, malaria and sleep deprivation? 
Lowry shakes off his uncertainties and tries to put the junk up, but the skull falls out of the box, and Lowry kicks it into the corner, knocking loose one of its teeth.  The four lines of text from his tombstone clutter up the narrative for the second time this chapter.  Lowry fails to remember whether or not this is the "fossilized" skull of poor Sebastian, then starts muttering Hamlet jokes to himself: "to be or not to be," "alas, poor Lowry," the usual.  It is quite droll.

He tried to laugh at himself and failed. He could feel his nerves tautening again; he could hear the echoes of the old mother's remarks. Cats, hats, rats-- Cats, hats, rats. Hats, bats, cats, rats. Hats lead to bats, lead to cats, lead to rats. Rats are hungry, James Lowry. Rats will eat you, James Lowry. Hats, you came here to bats, you go on to cats, you get eaten by rats. Do you still want to find your hat? Hats, bats, cats, rats. Rats are hungry, James Lowry. Rats will eat you, James Lowry.

Hmm.  So what do you think, folks?  Is Lowry being effed with by prankster demons, and has his best friend and wife grown fangs?  Or do you think he might be in the midst of a mental breakdown?

That last sentence is then repeated no less than seven times, followed by "Do you still want to find your hat?" be repeated in italics and all-caps, then back to the hats-bats-rats rhyming nonsense, all building to "Do you still want to find your hat, James Lowry?"  It is very scary, and not at all annoying, because remember this is a critically-important horror story that inspired future greats like Stephen King.

Lowry gives a Big No, and a "childish treble" tells him "Then you are not the Entity."  Lowry looks around but can't see anyone else in his office.  After the page break he'll look again and see someone appear after all, which means that it really would have been better to end this section with the shock of the child's line of dialogue so that Lowry looks like less of a tool.

Back to Chapter 6, part 2

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fear - Chapter 6, Part 2 - Elementary

After breakfast, Lowry hits the university and goes to his classroom.  Now he's had a very trying past couple of days, and by all rights he ought to be taking some time for rest and recuperation, but he's set on holding class as normal.  Is it because he's passionate about imparting his knowledge upon fresh young minds, and guiding his pupils as they delve into their studies?

It was good to be in such a familiar place, good to stand up here on the platform and watch the students pass the door in the hall.  Presently they would come in here and he would begin to drone along on the subject of ancient beliefs in ancient civilizations and perhaps, after all, everything was right with the world.

Nah.  Dude just likes his routine, and wants to drone when he normally drones.  I have a feeling Professor Lowry's departure from Atworthy's College isn't going to greatly affect its performance.  Might offer room for improvement, in fact.

Unfortunately, Lowry's attempt to sink into the comfort of his rut is foiled when he sees a mysterious message waiting for him on the chalkboard: "You are the Entity.  Wait for us in your office."  The writing is similar to that on the note he couldn't quite read from last night, save for the fact that, you know, he can read it.  Spooked, Lowry's able to wipe the words from the board with some hard scrubbing, but then "first word, second word, letter by letter with slow cadence, appeared once more."  That's some stubborn chalk.

Lowry gets a-trembling, but as students are starting to enter, he decides to ignore the message and hope they do too, or else consider it something from the previous class.  He sees a girl in a new dress who is "being casual," a boy trying to act manly in front of his girlfriend, but there's no recognition, no names attached to his students, no connection with them.  He certainly doesn't try to chat, ask how their homework is going, if they've thought about grad school or a career path, anything like that.  Lowry's here to recite a script in front of an interchangeable classroom of eighteen-to-twenty-somethings.

Well, maybe I'm being unfair.  Maybe Lowry is a warm and loving professor when he doesn't have malaria or hallucinations bedeviling him.  At any rate, once the bell rings, Lowry deploys his lecture.

Only long habit and much reading from the book carried him through.  Now and then, during the hour, his own words came into his consciousness for a moment and he seemed to be talking rationally enough.  The students were making notes and dozing and whispering and chewing gum--it was a normal enough class, and obviously they saw nothing wrong.

Or maybe a sickened Lowry trying to hide a nervous breakdown is indistinguishable from a healthy Lowry teaching a normal class.

He goes on about how ancient doctors in China continued to engage in rituals and superstition even as medicine advanced, feeling some relief that he's able to do so as if nothing was wrong, while his students ignore him to stare out of doors and windows at the lovely morning outside the classroom walls... but when Lowry gets to a part in the script where he's supposed to joke about a primitive claiming to be cured by a witch doctor's drumming to save his hearing, he finds himself unable to tell it, and then he stumbles when talking about man's tendency to attribute the unseen and unknown to fiendish influences.

Lowry reflects on the mystery that medicine drums did seem to cure people, or how the power of faith healing leads to piles of unneeded crutches in church.  "And now that people had turned from the church to a wholly materialistic culture, was it not odd that worldly affairs were so bloody and grim?"  A surprising sentiment - I assumed Hubbard's gripes about materialism came from the lead-up to the age of Reaganomics, but even in the wholesome days of fascism and empire he was complaining about consumerism.

And then the professor suddenly realizes he's been thinking out loud.

For a moment no longer than an expressive pause would be, he studied his class. Young minds, ready and waiting to be fed anything that any man of repute might wish to feed them, sponges for the half-truths and outright lies and propaganda called education, material to be molded into any shape that their superiors might select. How did he know if he had ever taught truth?

This is an alarming statement coming from an educator of many years.

He did not even know if the dissemination of democracy itself was error or right.

That is a really alarming statement considering what was going on in Europe during 1940.

These were the children of the next generation, on the sill of marriage and the legal war of business. Could he, with his background, ever tell them anything which might help them? He, who had been so sure for so many years that all was explainable via material science, he who now had wandered far add had seen things and talked to beings he had for years decried!-- could he say now what he had said so often before?

I guess he's abandoned the "unknown malaria complication" explanation entirely now.

Well, Lowry decides that he might as well go for broke, considering that twelve hours ago he was following the ghost of a priest up a vertical cliff in search of a lost hat, and he still has that persistent floater lurking on the fringes of his vision.  So we get a five page diatribe about the modern world's relationship with the unknown and supernatural.

Lowry starts off by explaining science's mission as "clear[ing] fear from the minds of men by telling men that there is nothing of which he must be afraid lust because he cannot see the actual cause," but admits that now he isn't sure of anything.  After all, "Man has always known that his lot upon this earth is misery, and he has, until a split second ago in geological time, understood that there must be beings beyond his ken who take peculiar delight in torturing him."  He reminds his students that many among them keep good luck charms, or have superstitions about not bragging about their health for fear of inviting illness, and all of them would find a ghost to be frightened of if placed in a supposedly haunted house at midnight.

"As a question only, let me ask, might it not be possible that all of us possess a latent sense which, in our modern scurry, has lapsed in its development?  Might not our own ancestors, acute to the primitive dangers, exposed to the wind and the dark, have given attention to the individual development of that sense?  And because we have neglected to individually heighten our own perceptions, are we now "blind" to extra-material agencies?  And might we not, at any moment, experience a sudden rebirth of that sense and, as vividly as in a lightning flash, see those things which jealously menace our existences?  If we could but see, for ever so brief a period, the supernatural, we would then begin to understand the complexities which beset man.  But if we experienced that rebirth and then told of what we saw, might we not be dubbed "mad?"  What of the visions of the saints?

Now, reading this book, and knowing what we do nearly seventy-five years later, makes it easy for us to backtrack from the ending of Hubbard's biography and find things that foreshadow it, and since we know what to look for our findings might not be accurate, it's a prejudiced investigation.

But this looks very much like the seeds of Scientology.  Not necessarily the hate-on for Freudian psychology or government authorities, but the idea that people have become blind to the truth about themselves and the world around them, but can be made aware of this truth (through a modified ohmeter that has not been subjected to clinical trials), and reconnect with ancient knowledge to gain an understanding of the supernatural elements that surround mankind and influence their very souls. 

"As children, all of us felt the phantoms of the dark.  Might not that sense be less latent in a child whose mind is not yet dulled by the excess burden of facts and facts and more facts?  Are there not men in this world today who have converse with the supernatural, but who cannot demonstrate or explain and be believed because of the lack in others of that peculiar sense?

And here's where the defensive, "it doesn't make sense to you because your mind is still closed" element comes in.

"I am giving you something on which to ponder.  You have listened patiently to me for long weeks and you have filled notebooks with scraps of ethnology.  I have not once, in all that time until now caused you to think one thought or ponder one question.  There is the bell.  Think over what I have said." 

James Lowry, the college professor who doesn't need his students to think.

It's now that half of the students start to wonder whether Professor Lowry is ill, but the rest think this is all another of Lowry's "well-known jokes" - and really, he seems to be the guy who keeps his students laughing, right?  Lowry stays behind, busying himself with his notes as he avoids both eye contact with the people leaving, and the message on the chalkboard behind him: "You are the Entity.  Wait for us in your office."  End chapter.

Well.  That was enlightening, wasn't it?  We didn't discover squat about what's going on, but we learned that nothing of value was lost when Lowry was given the sack.

Back to Chapter 6, part 1

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fear - Chapter 6, Part 1 - Discovery

So last chapter we had the, uh, horrific twist of Lowry relaxing on his own grave.  This chapter opens with him in his bedroom, noting from the position of the sunlight on the wall that he's woken up early.  And I can't help but feel disappointed in this transition - if it were me, I'd have Lowry black out in shock or something after reading his own tombstone, then jerk awake and find himself in his room again.  As written, he scampered home and went back to bed, with no additional angst or distress between that revelation and his awakening.  Mind-numbing shock, a brisk late night walk, and sleep.

But here we are.  Lowry lies in his bed, listening to the sounds of the early morning: the bird by his window, Mary singing elsewhere in the house, and some jackass running a lawnmower when reasonable people are still trying to get their seven hours in.  But then he hears a board creak outside his door, and "somehow there was menace in that sound."  And, for another reason he can't explain, Lowry decides to lay still in bed with his eyes nearly closed, feigning sleep. 

Do you think this book would be better if we substituted the words "the Force" whenever a mysterious something imparts knowledge to Lowry?  And how might Star Wars be affected if we swapped out "the Force" for "the Plot?"

Using his Jedi Fake Sleeping trick, Lowry sees Tommy silently open the door and enter his room.  Tommy seems satisfied that Lowry is still asleep, and creeps closer until he's standing right over him.  Lowry's first instinct is to grab his friend's arm, I don't know, as a prank or something, but the Force tells him to wait.  Tommy glances back as if to ensure that Mary isn't around to see, then he moves his hand over Lowry's eyes, once, twice.  Our protagonist feels a numb sensation creeping through him, and can't move!  A Sith Stay-Sleepy Trick!

Tommy leans in close until their faces are only three inches apart, and the sexual tension is just devastating.  He stays like this for over a minute, and for a moment Lowry thinks he can see fangs in his friend's mouth!  Then Tommy straightens up, "a cold smile taking the beauty from his face," and silently leaves the room.

Well.  That was weird.

It's some time before Lowry is able to get up out of bed, as he feels like he's made a deposit at the blood bank.  When he's able to haul himself in front of the mirror, he's shocked by the vision he sees in it: a man with sunken eyes and cheeks, gaunt and gray like a corpse with matted hair and shaggy eyebrows.  Lowry focuses on shaving and washing up and feels a bit better when he looks again to tie his cravat.

After all, here it was a fresh spring day.  Devil take Jebson; the old fool would be dead long before James Lowry.  Devil take the four hours; as the knight had said, what were four hours?  Devil take the phantoms which had assailed him.  He had courage enough and strength enough to last them out.  He had too much courage and will power to cause him to back down upon his original assertions in the article.  Let them do their worst!

A heroic sentiment, except this kinda completely flies in the face of how we've seen Lowry act when push comes to shove.  He decided the four hours was the result of some malaria complication, then went off to look for them, and when things got scary he was relieved he didn't find them.  He rallied and decided to face his fears, only to subsequently run away and presumably wet himself when they revealed themselves.  To say nothing of his odd choice of words, "devil take them," given that this all started when Lowry voiced his disbelief in said devil.

Still, the weirdest thing about this may be that Lowry isn't dwelling on Tommy's fangs or that paralysis hex.  Something like that happened to me, I think I'd spend most of the morning, if not the rest of the day, coming to terms with my friend being a warlock lizard-man.

Instead, Lowry marches down to breakfast, pointedly ignoring the floater and phantom laughter that are still following him.  Mary gives him a good morning kiss, Tommy's already at the table and casually mentions Lowry's late night stroll.  No one's concerned that Mr. Malaria was wandering around at night again, when last time he wound up passed out in the gutter, chilled even further by rain.  Has this happened before with non-malaria illnesses?  Is Mary used to Lowry being escorted home by night watchmen?

For his part, Lowry feels a flash of resentment that Tommy mentioned his rambling in front of Mary, then he almost recalls and considers that bizarre episode when his friend snuck into his room just minutes ago, but has his thoughts derailed when Mary serves him his food.  It goes about as well as Sunday dinner, in that his plate tries to dodge his fork when he makes an attempt at spearing his eggs.  On top of that, whenever Lowry focuses his attention on his incredible dancing breakfast, out of the corner of his eye he thinks he sees yellow fangs in Tommy's mouth again.

With all his courage exerted, Lowry managed to sit still.  He looked at his plate.  As long as he did not try to touch it, it was perfectly quiet.

Then he saw something else.  When he took his eyes away from Mary, she seemed to have fangs not unlike Tommy's!

He stared at her, but her face was its own sweet self.

He looked away.

Mary's mouth was marred by those yellow fangs!

If he could only see their mouths looking straight at them!  Then he could be sure!

The dark thing scuttled out of sight.

It's all too much for Lowry, and he abruptly gets out of seat and announces he has to meet somebody before his first class.  And yes, even after the malaria, the terrible visions, the inability to eat, the lost sleep, the lost hours, having to hastily exit church mid-service, and so forth, not only is Lowry not going to a doctor, he still plans on trying to teach.  Boy, he must sure love being a professor and have a real passion for... well, we'll see in a bit.

Mary asks what's wrong, Lowry tries to reassure her with a kiss but feels those fangs pressing against his mouth, yuck.  She points out he's forgotten his hat as he walks out the door, but he only waves in response and keeps on trucking.  Tommy hurries to keep up with Lowry, asking what's wrong, though Lowry can see clearly - when he isn't directly looking, anyway - the fangs in Tommy's mouth, and the "sly, meaningful" look on his face.

Tommy reminds Lowry of his late-night ambulations, "chasing forth as though possessed by a thousand devils," and asks what's wrong.  Lowry can only coldly reply that Tommy already knows the answer, reminds Tommy that it was his talk of demons and devils that started all this, and says he's "almost sure" Tommy is to blame for all his recent problems.

"I'm glad you said 'almost,' Jim."

"There was that drink, and then everything went black for four hours and I lost-"

"Jim, there's no poison or anything in the world that could cause such a blankness and leave no effect.  Grant me that, Jim."

A-ha!  I never said it was poison, criminal!  

Lowry starts to waver, and Tommy assures him that "Whatever is happening to you has nothing whatever to do with me" and he only wants to help his friend.  So in the end, Lowry doesn't confront Fanged Tommy over that bizarre episode that morning, but instead agrees to meet him for lunch.  Then he sends his friend on ahead while he ducks into Mike's diner for some breakfast, since he's famished.

He was relieved to find that this plate did not move.  And it began to be born in him that Tommy must have quite a bit to do with what was happening to him.  He ate like a starved man.

Boy, it sure is exciting, following the experiences of a weak-willed, fearful and vacillating man as he continuously avoids taking the actions that could solve his problems, or learn from his past experiences.  This is almost like spending a whole horror movie with the stupid girl who normally gets killed by the psycho in the first five minutes.

Back to Chapter 5, part 2

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fear - Chapter 5, Part 2 - Bishop

So here's Lowry, following a ghost who is not in the least bit enraged that the good archaeologist stole the gold belt he had lovingly crafted, in hopes of finding those four lost hours of his.  And possibly his hat.  This translates to another dream sequence, though it's much shorter and less interesting than the last one since the novelty's worn off, and less scary because he's got a buddy and again we've seen this before.

Sebastian the ghost monk makes the sign of the cross and points upward, and suddenly Lowry finds himself on a "smoothly blue roadway" that seems to lead all the way to the moon.  Up they march, past dark fields and sleeping hamlets, and the only encounter of note is when Lowry and Sebastian pass "a thing with bowed head and hidden face" coming down the other way, but "Lowry could not understand what it was," so we'll just have to deal with a couple of words devoid of meaning and consequence.  The good news is that there's no sign of that annoying floater or the disembodied snickering that's been plaguing Lowry for the last chapter.

As they march an indeterminate time and distance, Lowry notes that the road is growing more disused and rougher, is now crawling up and down hills as they near a range of mountains, and occasionally trembles as though affected by an earthquake.  Then Sebastian asks if Lowry's ever climbed mountains before, because suddenly they're at the base of the cliff.  A cliff that the ghost monk proceeds to walk right up in defiance of gravity.  Lowry boggles for a moment, reaches up, but it's okay, the cliff is actually only nine feet tall or so and he's able to easily swing up.  Of course, once they're up there the road falls away until it looks like a "white string," but Lowry's not concerned, the night's really pleasant.

And I dunno, it's similar to - probably technically the inverse of, since we're climbing rather than descending - that trip down the staircase two chapters ago.  But it's just not the same.  It's dreamy, I guess, nebulous in terms of time and space, with distances that change depending on how you look at them.  But it isn't scary, y'know?  It's just a weird moonlit stroll, with a dead chap along for company.  Hardly lives up to the Fear on the cover.

Perhaps in response to my criticisms, the trail comes to a halt, forcing Lowry to grab onto an awkward ledge and pull himself onward while hanging from it, while the gulf below pulls at his legs.  He can't see Sebastian, but then he looks up at the ledge he's hanging from.

See that?  The white gap between paragraphs?  That's what happens when Lowry looks up, a section break before the author reveals what he saw.  My guess is that it's a really clumsy attempt to increase the shock of what Lowry sees.  If not, then all the random chapter and Part breaks in Mission Earth make a little more sense.

Anyway, there's "a great splotch of black" hovering at the top of the cliff, broken only by eyes glaring "luminously down with malevolence!" at him.  You can poop yourself in terror now.

Lowry cries out for Sebastian as the thing purrs and starts to pry his fingers from his grip, but there's no answer.  One of his hands is dislodged, but then Lowry remembers he has a gun in his pocket - which is good, because I'd forgotten.  It's no help, though, 'cause when he lifts it to aim and fire, "Suddenly Lowry was aware of a reason he could not pronounce that he must not shoot," which is a really bad sentence.  Lowry knows that firing a weapon will only call a whole "pack" of these angry shadows upon him, and anyway the odds are that his gun will be ineffectual, so why bother?

Therefore, rather than try to save himself, he does nothing until his other hand is dislodged and he falls off the cliff.  Even in malaria-fueled dream sequences, the guy cannot make a good decision.  Now I know we've only seen Lowry do things while malaria's floating around in his brain, but I'm starting to wonder just how much we can blame on the pathogen.

There's another "He had no memory of landing" moment where Lowry finds himself stretched out at the bottom of a drop without actually hitting, but since we've seen it before it isn't as good.  He finds himself on a sort of smooth, nearly metallic ledge lined with caves, and there's no sign of Sebastian or the angry shadow.  Lowry knows he shouldn't, but enters one of the caves in search of a way down - I guess this is video game logic from before they had video games - and finds himself crawling along on his hands and knees in a strangely furry darkness. 

Something bumps into him from behind and says "Go along ahead of me please," and Lowry, who set forth this night intending to face his fear like a man, dares not glance back at what's poking his butt.  Instead he tremulously asks where Sebastian went.

"You are not with them now.  You are with us.  Be as little trouble as you can, for we have a surprise waiting for you down one of these tunnels.  The opening, you poor fool, is on your right.  Don't you remember?"

"I... I've never been here before?"

That's not really a question.

"Oh, yes, you have.  Oh, yes, indeed, you have.  Hasn't he?"

"Certainly he has," said another voice at hand.

"Many, many times."

"Oh, not many," said the other voice.  "About three times is all.  That is, right here in this place."

"Go along," yawned the first voice.

It was all he could do to force his legs to work.  Something unutterably horrible was waiting for him, something he dared not approach, something which, if he saw it, would drive him mad!

-der.  Evidence suggests you're already a few fries short of a Happy Meal, Mr. Lowry.

"You belong to us now, so go right along."

"What are you going to do with me?"

"You'll find out."

So Lowry keeps creeping along in the dark, surrounded by those mocking voices, and I'm sure it's meant to be very scary but I'm still wondering - what's with the hair?  Why is the floor "furry, all of it, dry and ticklish to the touch?"  Back in reality, is he inching along the shag carpet in the den?  Lying in a ditch rubbing his face on a sleeping dog?  Or is this all meant to be symbolic of... I couldn't begin to guess.  Probably nothing sexual, given the author's hatred for Freudian psychology, so get your mind out of the gutter.

The hairy tunnel is one of those details that makes it a legitimate dream sequence, but is just too odd for a horror story, it distracts from the fear.  Imagine modifying a passage from The Shining so that Danny and Wendy are running down halls made of jam.  Surreal, yes, horrifying, not so much.

Lowry progresses down an incline where things slither around and bat at his feet with each step, and he's almost too scared (and ill) to proceed until he hears Sebastian's voice up ahead.  He pushes onward and finds himself in a chamber lit by a high stained-glass window, with seven stone bulls on a high ledge above him, each with a hoof on a ball.  The floor is slippery with a substance that will not be identified for about a page in an attempt to scare us.

There's a crowd of people in the room, split between sexes.  Sebastian's in the middle chanting and waving his arms, eyes aimed at the high window, while the women move in a circle around him, lovely, innocent, and dressed in white.  But the men in the circle around them are leering with evil and stained with foulness, and whenever the women pass behind the altar Sebastian is chanting at, the men snatch and paw at them, while the women glance back with "abruptly lascivious eyes" before composing themselves as they continue 'round in front. 

It's deeply symbolic, you see, of Christianity's struggle with the human sex drive, and how its practitioners are forced to fulfill their "wicked" impulses out of the sight of the priesthood and don the facade of purity to live their everyday lives.  Sebastian is the well-meaning but deluded pastor, so focused on heaven that he cannot see the harm his sermons do to his flock.  This makes Lowry a messianic figure, who has to "die" from malaria in order to learn the truth and share it with the world, only to be betrayed by his own institution for speaking that truth.  The seven stone bulls of course represent the seven great American fast-food hamburger chains.

Lowry is so horrified by... men grabbing at not-unwilling women's clothes and snickering about it to each other, I guess, the guy should definitely stay away from strip clubs... that he screams and tries to flee!  And it is at this point that he's allowed to look down and notice the floor is slippery because it's covered in an inch of blood!  Poop!  Poop your pants in terror!

Sebastian only smiles, but all the men and women are angry, and the stone bulls come to life with a roar.  The "balls" they were holding underhoof turn out to be giant human skulls, which roll down and crush some of the people below, but not Sebastian.  Lowry decides to face his fear, by which I mean he turns his back on all this and runs the way he came.  A voice complains "Where are you going?  You must stay here and see it through!"

Lowry flees right into a dead end, the angry mob reaches him, he can see knives flashing and feel his blood flowing, but he cleverly escapes by going over a cliff.  Again, there's no falling or landing, the very next sentence of the same paragraph there's grass under his hands, and he pushes himself upright and continues to run.  He's outrunning the mob, but there are things flying through the air above and behind him, and when Lowry calls out to Sebastian there's no answer.  I'm not sure why he thinks the priest who was conducting that horrifying square dance would be of help right now.

More running and chasing, Lowry's out in the open now, the moon is shining down upon a vast white expanse, "not unlike a dried-up lake of salt," and then...

A shadowy shape loomed ahead, still afar. He forced himself to slow down and turn off away from it. There was something about its hat, something about the dark cloak, something about the thing which dangled from its hand-

Jack Ketch!

There was a ravine, and he scrambled down it. He crept along its bottom and went deep into a shadowy grove which he found there

Yeah, Hubbard did it again.  Except this time the gap was after the scare, which seems to have swallowed it up into because Ketch, or whoever Lowry saw, doesn't appear in the next paragraph, nor is he mentioned in what's left of the chapter.  So, more pointless words on paper.

Lowry creeps into a quiet grove, aware that something terrible is calling to him and trying to find him, but the something eventually gets fed up and goes home to watch Nick at Nite.  He stretches out on the grass, feeling triumphant that "He had not found his lost four hours!  He had not found them!"  Hooray!  ...Wait, wasn't he looking for those?

Alright, let's end this chapter with a real scare.  If you've already evacuated your bowels, I need you to go eat something and wait a few hours to digest it, so you can properly react to this shocker.

Lowry realizes he's lying on a mound next to some freshly-laid flowers and a big white something, and decides to properly look for it.  Stand by for underpants-filling horror.

There was writing upon that white stone.

But what kind of writing?

He inched a little closer and read:

Born 1901
Died 1940 
Rest In Peace

He recoiled.

He got to his knees and then to his feet.  The whole night was spinning and the high, shrill laughter was sounding again and the little dark shape dashed around to get out of his sight.
With a piercing cry he spun about and raced madly away.

Man.  This scare is so damn cliched that it not only negates anything good about this chapter, but retroactively makes the earlier nightmare sequence less interesting.

In case you don't get it, or are having trouble arranging the words you have read into a coherent thought, the author helpfully spells out at the end of the chapter that Lowry "had found peace for a moment, peace and rest, before the headstone of his own future grave!"  This is of course symbolic of the reader's death of interest in the story, which continues to shamble forward for three more chapters before realizing it's dead and finally expiring.

Back to Chapter 5, part 1