The first paragraph of "The Rats in the Walls" is fairly businesslike, though describing the priory being renovated as a "shell-like ruin" is a subtle way to set the tone, less so the mention that the place's previous owners were struck down by "a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature." But then it goes on for a few pages about the narrator's lineage and history before getting on with the spooky.
The very first sentence of Fear is "Lurking, that lovely spring day, in the office of Dr. Chalmers, Atworthy College Medical Clinic, there might have been two small spirits of the air, pressed back into the dark shadows behind the door, avoiding as far as possible the warm sunlight which fell gently upon the floor." Hubbard only has 182 pages to work with for this story, and he's not wasting any time in ramping up the terror, it seems.
Also, kicking off the book with such a cumbersome sentence isn't very auspicious.
Our main character is Professor James Lowry, an ethnologist who is currently wrapping up a visit to his doctor. He picked up a bit of malaria during an expedition to darkest Mexico, but it's no big deal, assures Dr. Chalmers. "A fellow with a rugged build like yours doesn't have to worry much about a thing like malaria. Not even the best variety of bug Yucatan could offer [sic]." At most he'd have to endure "a few chills," nothing worth taking a few days off for sick leave, much less canceling class.
After a brief mention of Lowry's lovely wife Mary and the doctor questioning what Lowry sees in such strange lands as America's immediate neighbor ("Facts."), Chalmers brings up the most important bit of background information for the story. See, Professor Lowry wrote an article for last Sunday's Newspaper Weekly, not to be confused with its rival rag the Weekly Newspaper. It was a dismissive piece about "primitive sacrifices and demons and devils," debunking such superstitions.
The door moved slightly, though it might have be caused by the cool breath of verdure which came in the window.
I had to go to Wiktionary for "verdure." If you're trying to establish a creepy mood, I'd suggest using words that don't come from a word-a-day vocabulary-building calendar. And "verdure" means "lush" or "healthy," so we're building mood with an invigorating breeze. A spoooky invigorating breeze.
Now, while malaria might be a harmless tropical flu, Doc Chalmers does have more serious words of warning about unhealthy skepticism. For one thing, Lowry's letter got his friend Tommy "frothing about such insolence" - we'll get to him in a bit. For another, the university's president Jebson doesn't like it when professors get the university's name in the papers, and he once "nearly crucified a young mathematician for using Atworthy's name in a scientific magazine" - we'll get to him next post, and boggle at his bizarre behavior even more.
Lowry's response to this is an almighty "Oh," since he thought Chalmers was worried about the content of the letter, not so much others' reactions to it. Except it turns out Chalmers was concerned about that too.
"I guess we're all superstitious savages at heart. And when you come out in bold-face type and ridicule ancient belief that demons caused sickness and woe and when you throw dirt, so to speak, in the faces of luck and fate, you must be very, very sure of yourself."
"Why shouldn't I be sure of myself?" said Lowry, smiling. "Did anyone meet a spirit of any sort face to face? I mean, of course, that there aren't any authenticated cases on record anywhere."
And now you can guess the plot of the rest of the story.
Lowry pooh-poohs Chalmers' questions about saints' visions with "Anyone who starves himself long enough can see visions," and asks why Chalmers, as a Man of Science™, is making such talk. Chalmers replies that he's been in a psychiatric ward enough... uh oh.
If you've kept up with this blog and my previous Hubbard sporking, you undoubtedly have noticed that by the end of Hubbard's career, psychology/psychiatry was the root of all evil, and any characters in his stories who dabbled with such false science were sinister villains, while mere contact with psychology's preachings turned men into animals.
Here we have if not a proper pre-Dianetics psychologist for comparison, then at least someone who's been up to his elbows in psychiatry, and he's... not too bad, actually.
See, Chalmers describes how he eventually began to wonder whether all of his patients' mental problems were self-inflicted, and mentions how his entire ward seemed to go insane(r) during a full moon, when demons are said to be out and about. Lowry is unimpressed.
And while Chalmers is unwilling to say that evil spirits exist, it does strike him as strange that "man's lot could be so consistently unhappy without something somewhere aiding in that misery." The doctor doesn't care whether that something is an electron or an air spirit, but he still will take comfort in knocking on wood. Truth, after all, "is an abstract quantity that probably doesn't exist."
In short, Chalmers doesn't seem to be trying to turn Lowry into a gay child molester, or arguing that humans are soulless animals driven only by their reproductive impulses. He seems to be trying to help people rather than kill them through lobotomies or corrupting them beyond reason. His belief in the supernatural or spiritual has survived his contact with the field of Freud, and in fact Chalmers seems like the sort of person who would be receptive to the suggestion that disembodied alien souls are responsible for all sorts of maladies, both physical and mental.
Guess 1940 Hubbard has a ways to go before he gets to the likes of the Catrists, Dr. Kutzbrain or Dr. Crobe.
"And so," said Lowry, slipping into his topcoat, "the goblins are gonna get me if I don't watch out."
Stop spoiling the rest of the book!
"They'll get you all right if Jebson saw that article," said Chalmers.
Stop spoiling the rest of the chapter!
The door moved ever so little--but then, perhaps, it was just the cool, sweet breath of spring whispering through the window.
Stop trying to make a lovely day scary!
So that's... the first section of the first chapter of Fear. There's no rapid barrage of short chapters and arbirtarily divided Parts in this book, rather eight chapters that span the 180-page tale and contain multiple sections divided by spaces. This was the first section of seven in Chapter One, for example. These sections can vary widely in length, so instead of doing one section per post, I'm just going to wing it depending on how much I have to say about them.
At any rate, an interesting start for the story. Compared to the writing style of Hubbard's last books I can't detect any great differences, and oddly enough we have the same references to a vaguely supernatural "luck" and "fate" that don't incorporate any specific deities, whether Christian or Classical. But the rabid anti-psychology rants are absent, and our hero is a mere academic (albeit a robust one) rather than some sort of superhuman adventurer. So I wouldn't call Fear better than Hubbard's later works so much as more restrained.
Next update we'll learn a little more about our hero, and what kind of college its president is running.
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