We're told that this is the sort of night that "makes a child want to run and run forever across the field, to feel the earth fly from beneath his feet, driven by the incomprehensible joy of just being alive." I've had a few afternoons like that, but I can't say I can recall an evening that ever made me want to jump out of bed and run around in the dark. At any rate, this observation leads Lowry to remember a time he and young Tommy did just that, and scared themselves silly after visiting a "haunted" cave and seeing a white horse in the moonlight. And that's really Tommy in a nutshell, a guy who "loved to devil his slower and more practical friend" with talks of ghosts and magic, or shock people by pretending to believe in deviant myths. Guess he's one of those friends you have trouble explaining to others why you're friends.
Now, in Chapter One we had a surprisingly neutral reference to psychology, but in this one we get a mention that's just as interesting.
How [Tommy] adored practically knocking students out of their seats by leaning over his desk and saying, in a mysterious voice, "To be polite, we call this psychology, but, in reality, you know and I know that we are studying the black goblins and fiendish ghouls which lie in pretend slumber just out of sight of our conscious minds." How he loved such simile! Of course, what he said was true, absolutely true, but Tommy had to choose that way of putting it; it was such a dull world, so drab; why not enliven it a little and stick pins into people's imaginations? Indeed, dear Tommy, why not?
Bloody semicolons. But yeah, psychology as another name for demonology. Sure, it's not an inaccurate statement - in the Bad Old Days we blamed mental illness (not to mention physical illness) on witches' curses and demonic possession, and a lot of modern science has been about finding a less supernatural explanation for things. But if psychology is another way of looking at black magic... well, what if someone could use it to bedevil and control others like the sorcerers of old? Just a little notion that might explain what psychology gradually turned into in Hubbard's mind.
Lowry's head feels cold, and at this point he remembers that he'd lost his hat. What an annoyance! He has his name in it, so surely someone will find and return it, but he can't help but find its loss symbolic of his memory problems.
Part of him was gone; four hours had been snatched ruthlessly from his life and with them had gone a felt hat. It struck him that if he could find the hat he could also find the four hours. Strange indeed that anything should so perplex him, the man whom little had perplexed.
Four hours gone.
His hat gone.
I think the story might be transforming from Dude, Where's My Car? to I Want My Hat Back.
Lowry has the notion to check near Tommy's house for his missing hat/four hours of his life, and proceeds to do so, but in the page or so since this chapter has started, he actually hasn't made any progress beyond the front steps to his house. He makes his way down them while admiring the night sky, and almost stumbles after hitting an extra step at the bottom.
And now things get weird. Let's borrow some music from Akira Yamaoka to set the mood.
Lowry looks behind him in preparation of backtracking, but there's no steps behind him, only a flight extending down before him into some dark gulf that has appeared before his house. The moon is still above him, and he's about level with his front yard, but when Lowry reaches toward the rim of this chasm it retreats from his fingers. He climbs down two more steps in an attempt to get closer, but the yard recedes from him again, and the steps behind him have disappeared as well. He hears tinkling laughter once or twice, but it must be wind chimes. Lowry instinctively knows there's something awful at the bottom of this strange staircase, something he couldn't confront with his sanity intact. But he does spy a door thirty steps or so below that might offer a way out of this predicament. Nowhere to go but down.
He wonders what his wife might think of all this, but no sooner does Lowry think that than he hears Mary yelling that he's forgotten his hat. He looks up and back to see her peering down at him from the porch, and when he tries to reassure her that he's fine and warn her not to come after him, she repeats the "Jim! Oh, my God! Jim!" scream from earlier and tries to follow. But just before she can step into empty space, there's a thundercrash and the earth rolls over his head, cutting off the world he's familiar with. Lowry can just hear one last "Jim! Oh, my God! Jim!" that fades first to a whisper, then a memory.
Alone in the dark, Lowry reassures himself that Mary will be fine, even though at the same time he feels the sick certainty that she's not up there any more. Rather than stand still and worry until he falls to his doom, he decides to grope through the darkness for that door he remembered seeing. It's tough going - the steps are spaced unevenly, and the wall he supports himself with feels smooth, cold and slimy beneath his hands. He can hear water dripping drop by drop somewhere in the dark, "frighteningly loud in this corpse-quiet place."
And in the midst of all this weirdness, what's his reaction?
He'd been in worse, he told himself. But it was funny, living in that house all those years without ever suspecting the existence of such a flight at the bottom of his front steps.
What was he doing here, anyhow? He told himself that he had to find something--
Four hours in his life.
A felt hat.
Eyes on the prize, Lowry. He keeps stumbling down, but gets worried when he counts thirty steps but still hasn't come across that door he saw, leading him to nearly panic at the thought that he might have to go all the way to the bottom to... whatever's down at the bottom of the stairs! And what could be down there? Maybe we'll find out next time.
Have to say, I can't offer much criticism with this section because there's not much wrong with it. This is a pretty good fever dream sequence, where reality is warping around the protagonist, who goes along with it because that's how dreams work (or is this a dream?). There's no awkward romantic dialogue, no forced scares like air spirits possibly lurking behind the door, nothing but the unease caused when the world stops working the way it should and the only way forward is into the dark heart of the unknown.
Sadly, this is probably the best part of the book, and it's all downhill from here. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it while we can, eh?
Back to Chapter 2, part 2