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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fear - Chapter 5, Part 1 - Relic

At some point after starting to pace around his room Lowry falls asleep, but the problem with turning in early is that, unless you're making up a sleep deficit, you tend to wake up early as well.  So it is that Lowry rises from the "kindly oblivion of a doze" when the clock is striking eleven at night.  Naturally, he wakes up feeling that something terrible is about to happen.  Given how his past two days have gone, it seems a safe bet.

He gets up and the spooky stuff kicks in immediately - phantom laughter, the shadowy floater ducking out of sight under his bed, and a rustling as though something was going through his papers.  No sooner does Lowry think that than a single sheet falls out of the shadows to land at his feet, covered in "ancient and incomprehensible script" that he can't decipher, save for a short section reading "11:30 to..." 

Lowry immediately concludes that this obviously indicates an appointment somewhere, perhaps even tonight, so he should get up, get dressed, and go out for another late night malaria tour, because the last one was such a smashing success.  After all, "wasn't it possible that he might have a friend somewhere who was volunteering to help him find his four hours?"  Even though he's only told Mary and Tommy about losing them.  He psychs himself up, building a righteous anger at himself for letting those devils and phantoms drive him mad without a fight, and resolves to strike back!  Yeah!  Something's driving him crazy, so he's gonna lash out and destroy them!  Kick that floater's ass, Lowry!

Note that he's decided that his problems aren't due to malaria complications after all, since "go to the freaking doctor" doesn't enter into his plan for action.  Instead Lowry grabs a flashlight and Colt .38, puts on his coat, and goes forth, confident that someone will emerge to lead him to the rendezvous he has decided is happening based on two words he read on a piece of paper that was otherwise gibberish.

Mary's light is off - so she does have her own room! - and Lowry knows there's "no use disturbing her," but since Tommy in the guest room left his door cracked open, he's fair game.  Lowry shines a bit of the flashlight on him to note how, without his "cynically twisted grin," Tommy is a "very beautiful fellow" in a 1940's, purely heterosexual sort of way.  Then Lowry leaves his house, feeling a glimmer of triumph when the front walk doesn't open up into an endless staircase to hell again.

He makes it to the street, ignoring the "little dark thing" hovering around his legs because so much weird stuff has happened to him lately that Lowry is getting used to it.  But then he hears a shout of "Jim!" and turns to see Tommy leaning out of an upstairs window.  His friend asks where he's going and requests that he "at least wait until I give you your hat!", but Lowry shudders and instead follows the something beckoning to him in the shadows of a tree.

This turns out to be "a cassocked little figure not more than four feet high, with a nearly luminous bald head," wearing sandals on his feet and beads and a cross around his neck.  He's also translucent, and not one to waste time on introductions, since the first thing he says is:

"You received my message?"

"Yes.  Where are we going?" asked Lowry.

"You know as well as I do, don't you?"


"Well-l-l-l-- You know me, don't you?"

The answer is no, because the ghost has to explain that he's Sebastian, whom Lowry ejected from his tomb six years ago.  Lowry doesn't remember the ghost busting, but does recall working on the church tombs of Chezetol - and no, that's not a real place, its only instances on Google are Fear-related, and when I type it into Wikipedia it thinks I'm looking for Cheetos.  It'd be nice if the author could have taken a few minutes to look up ongoing archaeological efforts in Central America to namedrop a real dig site and give his story a bit of verisimilitude, but this is the guy who seems to be implying that there are deserts in the Yucat√°n.

Sebastian's not upset about having his eternal rest disturbed or anything.  "I am a very humble fellow, and I am never angry, and if I have to wander now without a home, and if my body was the dust which your diggers' spades broke, I still am not angry.  I am a very humble person."  It's an assurance that doesn't quite reach the ghost's eyes.  Nevertheless, Sebastian explains to Lowry that he only wants his belt back.

"Your belt?"

What did I just say, Lowry?

"Yes, my beautiful golden belt. You picked it up and turned to your guide and said, 'What's this? A gold belt marked with the symbols of the Catholic Church! I thought this was an Aztec ruin. A week's digging for nothing but a golden belt.'"
"It is in the college museum."
"I was a little hurt about it;' said Sebastian sadly. "'-for nothing but a golden belt.' I liked it because I made it, you see, and we thought it was very beautiful. We converted Razchytl

Just as real as Cheetos-zol.

to Christianity, and then we took his gold and made sacred vessels of it, and when he died on the mining gangs we even went so far as to bury him with a golden cross.  May I have my belt?"

So wait - Lowry was excavating some "church tombs" under the impression that they were Aztec ruins?  Did he not do any research before he started digging?  And then when he found an artifact that clearly indicated a Catholic presence, he took it home instead of handing it over to the church?  Man, archaeologists are dicks.

Lowry says getting the belt back is impossible at the moment, but Sebastian counters that otherwise he won't help Lowry find his lost four hours.  So it looks like they're going to the college museum after all.  It's only a "very short distance" from Lowry's home to where the university stores its plunder, and he still has the keys to get in, but to his dismay finds that the relevant display case is empty - Jebson must have sold it to another college.  Sebastian insists that he is not even angry, he's being so sincere right now, and tries to leave over Lowry's objections.

Then a nightwatchman named Terence stumbles across them, giving them a mutual start and prompting Lowry to explain he was getting some research material for a lecture the next day, but the exhibit he was looking for is gone.  The guard is sympathetic, complains about Jebson cutting his pay, and compliments Lowry for his article.

"Thank you," said Lowry, moving to the door, panicky lest Sebastian be frightened away.

"Course you laid it on a bit thick, Professor Lowry.  Now, in the old country I could show you people that could tell you about having met a lot of things they couldn't explain.  It ain't healthy to go around begging the demons to smash you."

"Yes.  Yes, I'm sure it isn't."

Demons and devils don't really exist, but don't let them catch you saying that.

Lowry is relieved, after searching outside for twenty minutes, to find Sebastian hiding in the bushes.  Guess ghosts can't turn invisible after all.  Lowry vows that he'll buy back that belt of his, if Sebastian will help him find those four hours.  The monk agrees, 'cause he really liked that belt, - " though the metal is heathen the work was the work of love."  But he gets Lowry to affirm that he's determined to get that time back, no matter the cost.

Sebastian also has a warning: last night Lowry met some things, and as scary as the experience was,

"Those things were all working on your side.  They were the forces of good.  You did not lose your four hours to them, Jim Lowry.  Nor to me."

"I must find them.''

"You could not conceive the forces of the other side.  You could not conceive so much pain and terror and evil   If you are to find those four hours you must be prepared to face those other forces."

"I must find them.''

"Then, Jim Lowry, have faith in me and I shall show you part of the way.  The rest of the way you must go alone."

"Lead and I shall follow."

And ooh, it sounds like the plot is thickening, isn't it?  We've been promised even worse scares than wobbling plates and vacant suits of armor, and now the invisible world of horrors is being divided into two camps, given motives and characterization.  Well... I wouldn't get your hopes up.

Back to Chapter 4, part 2

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fear - Chapter 4, Part 2 - Withdrawal

Lowry is unable to fully articulate his misgivings about the church before he bumps into a Mrs. Hawkins, to whom he explains that Mary is feeling unwell and will regrettably be canceling their scheduled afternoon tea.  When they enter the church, Tommy and Lowry sit at the pew they usually share with Mary.  All the while, Tommy is whispering a combination of scorn and encouragement, describing Mrs. Hawkins as an "awful old frump" who is friends with Jebson, but also saying how Mary always longed to travel with Lowry and that the two are now freed from the ennui of tea ceremonies.

You remember Jebson, right?  The university president who fired Lowry in chapter one?  The guy who set the plot in motion?  It's just that it'd be easy to forget who he is since he's had as much screentime as those figures from Lowry's subconscious.

The church service begins, and despite Hubbard's later glowing praise of religion when compared to the soullessness of psychiatry, it's not romanticized at all.  The organ starts to "wheeze and complain," the congregation rises to its feet "and dropped books and shuffled and coughed," the parson's voice is nasal enough to cut through the "scrape and din," and the choir opens the service with "tremulous wails."  Aside from one possibly sarcastic comment about Tommy being too wrapped up in the "glory of God" to notice Lowry's distress, there's no sense of connecting with something greater than oneself, and Lowry isn't comforted by being in God's house.

Now, this might be because Lowry's currently being tormented by nonexistent devils, who could be cutting off his connection with God, but the narrative doesn't compare Lowry's current unsettling church visit with more meaningful past experiences.  So combined with his remarks about going to "uphold the family honor" from earlier, church is portrayed as one of those things you gotta put up with, a weekly chore like taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn.  Still, at least it's not psychology, am I right?

Anyway, the service chugs along, and Lowry stares at the back of Jebson's head while brooding on his lost hours.  Tommy just told him to stop worrying, but Lowry knows that if he doesn't discover what happened in that time he'll go mad, yet also that he shouldn't be looking.  "No, he dared not.  And yet he must!"

And then...

He was on his feet again, staring blankly at the hymn book and singing more from memory than either the notes or the organ. And then he wasn't singing, but was oblivious of everything.

Some soft substance had touched against his leg.

He was afraid to look down.

He looked down.

There was nothing there

Scary stuff.  Not even holy ground can save you from the horrors of a "soft substance."

Lowry does his best to ignore the bad touch, trying not to shiver, but then something invisible brushes him again while he's looking down at himself, and he's so agitated that he grabs Tommy and leaves, ignoring everyone's stares.

After an unusually lush paragraph describing the warm sun, comforting breeze, and small-town charms surrounding the church, such as waiting horses and a kid playing with a dime he was paid for shining someone's shoes, Lowry and Tommy hurry on home.  Lowry eventually confesses that he felt something touch him inappropriately in church, and to make matters worse, now he's seeing a little dark shape following him out of the corner of his eye.

The author tries to make it frightening, bless his heart, and describes how the tension builds in Lowry as the nameless, shapeless thing continues to stalk him.  But when you talk about an indistinct shape that's never quite in the center of your vision, always stays with you regardless of how fast you walk, and turns with your head, the first thing that comes to mind is "floater," not "phantasmal horror."  Or possibly a blind spot.  Maybe Lowry did what I did and worked on the computer with insufficient lighting, so the LED power indicator on his monitor got temporarily burned into his retina.

Or maybe not.  After ordering Tommy not to worry Mary with any of this and inviting him over to stay the night, Lowry requests that his friend switch what side he's walking on, and sure enough that dark spot starts following him from the left rather than right.  It's a tricky floater.

They get home, Mary greets Tommy with joking(?) surprise that the "old heathen" went to church, Tommy takes her hand and says she's "lovely as ever," and Mary warns "Don't let the current sweetheart hear you say that."  Oddly, Lowry has no reaction to this.  Mary asks them about how Mrs. Hawkins took her tea invitation being canceled, Tommy describes how horrible her face looked, and Lowry continues to shiver and see things.  He experiments with moving his head slowly to let him sneak up on the floater, but it's canny enough to stay mostly out of sight.  Lowry's convinced that he'll feel better if only he can spot what the thing is.

Eventually the others notice that he's shivering again, and Mary sends Lowry back upstairs to get some malaria medicine and a nap, or in other words exactly what he should be doing instead of going to church, or going out for late night walks.  Lowry is briefly reluctant to leave his wife and Tommy alone together, but berates himself for such jealous thoughts, and focuses on hugging the walls so that the thing in the corner of his eye can't get him.  He can see it "very indistinctly" against the white tiles of the bathroom when he's getting his quinine, and...

I don't know, it's probably not meant to be funny, but I get a kick out of Lowry cunningly turning his head so the shadow is shoved back into the bathroom's recesses, then jumping out and locking the bathroom door behind him to trap the floater.  Lowry laughs, but presumably out of relief.  Then he immediately berates himself for reacting so strongly to a weird malaria symptom and takes a nap.

Three hours later he wakes up feeling warm as Mary calls him down for Sunday dinner, and wow this chapter drags on compared to the last one, doesn't it?  Lowry feels better for his rest and also good about something he can't quite remember, but then he hears some "high, musical laughter" that definitely isn't Mary's husky mirth.  He looks for it but can't find any source, even though it sounds strangely familiar, and then damn it all but that floater is back too.  Poor guy can't make any progress.

Things don't get any better at dinner.  Lowry's hands are shaking too bad for him to cut up and serve anything, so Tommy gets to step in.  While Tommy and Mary laugh about food prices and wages, the floater behind Lowry laughs along with them.  And then when he's actually working on his food his plate starts to move under his knife and fork, "a sort of easy, circular motion" that only happens when he makes contact with it.

Lowry gets up to excuse himself, explaining that he's still ill, but even though Mary notices how white he's gone, he refuses to go to the doctor.  Our protagonist is aggressively determined to keep himself in as sorry a condition as possible, but it's for the sake of the story, see - if Lowry gets proper treatment, either his symptoms will cease, proving that they were all in his head, or they'll persist, meaning demons are pranking him.  Dramatic tension demands that he be as stupid about his sickness as possible.

So our hero goes back to bed, followed by that scuttling shadow, and locks himself in his room despite thinking better of it.  And then he paces in circles because he's too agitated to sleep.  End chapter.

Wobbling plates, hallucinatory laughter and a retinal afterimage.  Man, I miss the staircase. 

Back to Chapter 4, part 1

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fear - Chapter 4, Part 1 - Afterimage

Alas, all good things - or in this case, occasionally-competent nightmare sequences - come to an end.  Lowry wakes up hearing a voice:

"Come on, now.  You'll come around all right.  A nice sleep in the jail will fix you up.  Never did see why men had to drink--Why, it's Professor Lowry!"

Why, it's Old Billy Watkins!  Feels weird to preface a diminutive nickname with an adjective indicating age.  Anyway, Watkins is a friendly old policeman Lowry's known since childhood.  The guy arrested him for driving a bike on the sidewalk and after a complaint that Lowry broke a window, but the two get along just fine, and Watkins is even a bit deferential to the professor.

Lowry murmurs a question of how long he's been lying on the sidewalk in a pre-dawn rain shower, all of thirty feet away from his house.  Old Billy thinks it's been only five or six minutes, since he just passed by not too long ago.  He also thinks it's close to four in the morning, though Lowry left his house around "nearly" midnight.  Way to go, Lowry, in your search for your lost four hours you've lost four more.

Well, I guess since he remembers being in a nightmare realm, they're not exactly "lost" hours.  At any rate he's not at all bothered by the time.  Old Billy helps him to his door, commenting that he'd heard Lowry was suffering from some heathen tropical illness.  After noticing a bruise on his face, the policeman worries that Lowry had himself a fall, and offers to call "Doc Chalmers" on his friend's behalf.  Lowry, who is suffering from memory loss and nightmarish visions on top of the symptoms of malaria, naturally brushes the suggestion aside.  Our book wouldn't work if the main character was sensible and sought help for his problems.

After watching Old Billy successfully cross the walk from the porch to the street without falling into a foreboding chasm, Lowry steps inside and is fussed over by his wife.  Mary was worried sick, of course, nearly enough to make her call Tommy and have him look for Lowry... but not, as it turns out, enough to open the front door and stick her head out, or go to the sidewalk and look up and down the street for her husband.  Guess Lowry's not the only character avoiding the obvious solutions to their problems.

Mary notices not just the bruise on Lowry's face, but a cut on his hand that makes Lowry think he's been pinched, and also that her husband smells "like... like seaweed."  He's so shivery and shaky at this point that she doesn't waste any time on questions and gets him out of his wet clothes and into bed.  And we get some belated dialogue that I was expecting some time ago.


"Yes, Jim?"

"I love you."

She kissed him.

"You know I'd never hurt you, Mary."

"Of course not, Jim."

"I think you're good and loyal and beautiful, Mary."

"Hush.  Go to sleep."

He closed his eyes, her hand soothing upon his forehead.  In a little while he slept. 

Sadly, no mildly interesting nightmare sequence for this nap.  

Lowry wakes up after sunrise with the feeling that something's horribly wrong, that "someone or something was near at hand, ready to do a thing to him."  Then he realizes it's Sunday and he ought to go to church.  That's the transition: he's worried that "a thing" is going to happen to him, he hears the sound of people outside on the street, and then he's up looking for his church clothes.

And yes, the guy who passed out during a midnight stroll while reeling from malaria is absolutely going to shuffle into the chapel with chills and fever.  This would not be an exciting book if Lowry stayed in bed until he got better, or had a follow-up visit to Doc Chalmers.  As a result, this is a stupid book.

Mary's still sleeping in her room... wait, these two are married but have separate rooms?  Was this a thing in the '40s, or would depicting a married man and woman sharing the same bed offend readers' delicate sensibilities?

Anyway, Mary's worried they've overslept and wants to get moving, but Lowry says that she's earned a day of rest, so he'll "keep up the family honor" and make an appearance at church.  At this point I think he'd still be wandering around in public if he had the bubonic plague.  All Mary asks is that he tell her what the other women were wearing, because females are competitively superficial like that.

Since Mary's too asleep to cook, and of course because a man could never prepare his own breakfast, Lowry stops by a diner for some quick ham and eggs.  He answers the cook with a distracted "I suppose so" after being asked how he's doing, and proceeds to brood.  Lowry's not reflecting on his nightmares or anything, instead he's thinking back to his meeting with Tommy, and the ominous warning he was given.  Apparently it's not like Tommy to rile up a man who is already agitated, and Lowry finds himself upset with his friend, even though they were close enough as boys for Lowry to confide that he had broken that window, and sign a blood-oath to be BFFs 4-ever.

I'm glad Hubbard didn't leave us hanging with that question of Lowry's juvenile vandalism.

Lowry nearly finishes his meal when suddenly he realizes that it's not that tasty.  He also experiences a nameless fear creeping upon him, and the diner feels stifling when he gets up to pay.  Lowry notices how haggard he works in the mirror next to the register, and...

Through the mirror he saw that something was behind him! A blurry, awful something that was slowly creeping upon his back!

He snapped around.

There was nothing.

He faced the mirror.

There was nothing.

Thrilling stuff.  The cook asks if Lowry is sick (YES!) and whether there was anything wrong with the eggs (nah), and Lowry leaves without getting his change.  Along the way he happens to bump into none other than that rascal Tommy, and despite that period of doubt in the diner, Lowry is thrilled to see him.  Tommy remarks that Lowry looks "shaky, old man," and asks if he's been taking his pills.  Of course Lowry is feeling too well to take the medicine for his illness.  They make small talk: Lowry reminds his buddy they've been friends for ages, Tommy asks how Mary's doing, and Lowry replies that she's sleeping in after a bad night.

But then Lowry gets down to business, and confesses that he can't remember what happened during the four hours following their talk yesterday afternoon... and on top of that he's lost his hat.  Tommy can't help but laugh at the hat part, but he sobers up when Lowry describes all the weird and disturbing things that have been troubling him since then.

The two stop walking as they near the crowds heading into church, and Tommy reiterates his belief that Lowry's article might have insulted certain inhuman entities, and speculates that the visions Lowry experienced were representatives of those supernatural forces.  He also asks if Lowry has any weird marks, letting our protagonist show off that rabbit footprint on his arm.

And then... Tommy does a complete turnabout.  He suggests they "forget this," and assures Lowry that obviously his grim talk yesterday, combined with the stress of being fired and "some kind of malarial kickback that doctors have not before noticed," have blanked out some of Lowry's memories and caused him to lose his hat.  So Lowry should really see Dr. Chalmers and get some medicine.  The only irrational thing about the situation is that Lowry has gone on for so long without taking care of himself.  And the fact that the guy who treated all those demons and devils halfway seriously in the first place is now the most sensible character in the damn story.

Lowry thanks his friend for his sage counsel, and Tommy asks the odd question of whether Lowry thought he drugged his drink that afternoon, which Lowry emphatically denies.  And with all that worked out, the two march onward to church.  Turns out when Tommy said "go see a doctor," he didn't mean "go see a doctor now."

Jim Lowry looked up at the friendly old structure; the leaves had not yet come out upon the ivy, so that great brown ropes went straggling across the gray stone; the stained glass windows gleamed in the sunlight.  But somehow he felt very much out of place here.  Always it seemed to him that this was a sanctuary and place of rest, but now-

And the section ends exactly like that, with too many semicolons and a needless dash.

Back to Chapter 3, part 3

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fear - Chapter 3, Part 3 - Malignancy

One last bit of mood music.

Once the witch has pulled her "look behind you" gag, naturally she and the door she and Lowry were conversing through are gone once he turns back.  Someone below is yelling "Jim!  Jim Lowry!" like a town crier, and for lack of other options, Lowry continues his descent.  The stairs themselves have become irregular, so each step is "sometimes an inch and sometimes a yard, sometimes level and sometimes to the left, but always the opposite direction from which they appeared."  I appreciate this understated gesture, particularly after the rambling witch encounter.

The cry of "Jim!  Jim Lowry!" is repeated three more times, then suddenly followed by a narrated 'Paging Mr. Lowry.  Paging Mr. Lowry.'  This may have been the most shocking line in the whole book for me, 'cause it was written in friggin' 1940, and I didn't think they could even imagine the concept of paging someone back then.  But I guess "to page" somebody once meant to send a page out to find them, so the word had to have existed before the genesis of the electronic pager in the 50's or 60's.  Other than that, the line is kinda random.

Stairway Encounter #3 - Passing through more clinging mist, Lowry arrives at a polished marble section of the stairs overlooking a great medieval hall, bedecked with banners and containing "half a hundred guests about a board--but he did not feel he should go near the guests."  After nearly being knocked over by a Great Dane that promptly leaves to be never mentioned again, Lowry approaches some tapestries and weapon plaques to find a fully-armored knight.

But hold on a sec, I'm gonna get distracted here.  Hubbard describes a nearby shield with three rampant lions inscribed on it, which I at first assumed was a reference to the Royal Arms of England and perhaps an indication of the author's future anglophile tendencies when it comes to calling vehicles trucks or lorries.  Except England's lions are clearly passant guardant instead of rampant, plus the only colors the author gives us are the gold and white of a nearby tapestry.  There are some coats of arms with three rampant lions on them, but none I can see with that color scheme.  So to answer my question of whether the author was trying to convey some additional meaning through his choice of heraldry in this scene's background: the answers seems to be "nah."

Anyway, the knight.  He's a polite fellow, who asks if his visitor is indeed James Lowry, wonders aloud why he would then answer to Jim Lowry, but decides not to quibble.  He assures Lowry that this isn't a dream, and pinches the man to illustrate his point.  He also has some advice: that hat Lowry is seeking was worth only a few dollars, nothing compared to the value of his very life.  After all, Lowry could earn as much as $150,000 in the remaining thirty-five years of his life; similarly, the four hours Lowry lost is nothing compared to the "exactly three hundred and five thousand, four hundred and forty hours" he would have in those...

Wait.  24 hours in a day, times 365 days in a year, times 35 years equals three hundred and six thousand, six hundred hours.  The obvious counter is that "the knight must know that Lowry won't be living a full thirty-five years," but if he can afford to be exact about how many hours Lowry has left, why can't he be precise enough to say that Lowry will live 34.867 years?  Maybe I should follow the knight's example and stop quibbling.

Anyway, the knight does his best to convince Lowry to forget about the hat and his four hours, but Lowry slyly tries to get the knight to tell him what happened in his missing time, bringing up that article, the malaria, the drink he had at Tommy's.  The knight scolds that if Lowry is so determined to learn he should keep climbing down until he meets another man.  At this point Lowry asks the knight his name, which the knight finds an odd question: "Name?  Why should I have a name?  I am a knight, and I am full of ideals."  Not ideas, like the witch said last chapter, ideals.  Consistency, meh.

Lowry reaches forward to flip up the knight's visor, and finds nothing but blackness that soon swallows the entire scene.  It is very scary.

Stairway Encounter #4 - Last one, I promise.  Now the steps are regular but made of wood, and when Lowry continues down them he finds himself on flat earth.  He briefly tries to backtrack to the top, but of course the steps have turned into a railed landing, so it's a no go.  Then he notices another fella.

The narration assure us that Lowry didn't initially notice the man because he was dressed all in black, except he's carrying a lantern, which feeble though it may be ought to have been pretty visible in the otherwise absolute darkness. Whatever.  The dude's wide-brimmed hat can't hide "the grossness of his features or the cruelty of his mouth," but he seems a genial sort.  After making sure he's addressing Lowry, he remarks on the "nice, black weather we're having," and asks a few questions like Lowry's weight and if he has any deformities.  His name is Jack Ketch by the way.  Not sure why he didn't introduce himself after getting Lowry's name, but again, whatever.

Ketch suggests that Lowry put "a pound note" - England, eh wot? - in his coat, because Ketch "can make it pretty easy or I can make it terrible bad."  If you're starting to think Lowry shouldn't be stationary right now, you are officially smarter than the main character, who only recognizes Ketch as a threat after he gets out a rope and starts tying it into a noose.  Which is incidentally also the point Lowry realizes the thirteen steps and wooden platform he just climbed down was a gallows.  Guess the trapdoor wasn't there the first time he examined it?  Surely the author wouldn't omit a vital detail just to surprise us.

So, a chase scene.  It is very scary.  And also a bit confusing.  Lowry runs towards the gallows, I think, and tries to "catch himself on the brink of the new steps," but slips and falls into an abyss?  Surely he wasn't on the gallows and running down towards Ketch, right?  At any rate he falls for ages through mists and slashing tree branches, but doesn't so much impact as he does find himself lying in rank ooze at the start of the next paragraph.  But that familiar cry of "Lowry!  Jim Lowry!" indicates that he's still being pursued, and so Lowry flounders through this swampy forest while Ketch insists he's only trying to help.

"I don't want to hurt you," pleaded Jack Ketch's voice.  "I only want to hang you!"  He swore and spat.  "That's what a man gets for trying to help.  Lowry!  Come back here!  I want to tell you where to find your hat!"

Reminded of that doctor Splicer from BioShock.  "I don't want to hurt you, I just want to see what's inside!"

Lowry keeps running until "a mighty force" smacks into him and drags him into the ocean.  Yes, there's an ocean now, deal with it.  Dream world and all that.  Lowry nearly drowns, and it's very suspenseful until he's suddenly not drowning and floating comfortably on the ocean's surface next to what's actually a pretty pleasant beach lined with jungle.  The sky is blue, the sea is blue, there's no mention of the sun but it'd be pretty weird if he were able to see all this lovely scenery at night.  Lowry's content to relax and drift for a bit, but then he remembers his lost four hours and feels resolved to find them, despite all those warnings.

Then he realizes there's something horrible in the water beneath him, "many black and awful things beyond description which would haul him under and rend him apart," so he spazzes out and tries to swim to shore.  But now it's dark, and he can see the waves of the surging sea smashing on a nearby reef, and there's lightning but no thunder as he's borne inexorably towards his doom.  And then a piece of driftwood comes by, but Lowry refuses to cling to it, for he knows it's a special design that he has no right to touch.  And then he hears a voice from nearby, coming from a book held by a pair of hands, and nothing else.

"Now hold on tight," said a somewhat oily voice.  "Everything is going to be all right very soon.  But you must hold on tight and close your eyes and not see anything and not hear anything but what I tell you to see and hear.  Believe in me and do exactly as I tell you-"

Foreshadowing!  Not of anything related to the story, just Hubbard's life in general.

The voice was getting faint and far away, but that was because Lowry's weary face had dropped into the soothing cushion of the water while his hands, almost nerveless, still held the piece of wood.

And the chapter ends, just like that.

Most of it was ho-hum, a bunch of encounters with spooky witches and hangmen that were about as forced and trite as that "Tommy was sprawled over dead!  Oh, he's sleeping." nonsense.  Hubbard's at his best here when he's having Lowry stumble through the dreamscape's terrain, one lost soul against a strange and threatening world.  In this case, disjointed writing and sudden segues only enhance the fever-dream feel of the chapter - again, I really like how Lowry doesn't land in the ooze as he does fall in one paragraph, and find himself lying in the mud in the next.  It's an strangeness that builds a more genuine fear than any number of nooses and bats and talking suits of armor.

Maybe later we can look back and find all the clever bits of foreshadowing in this chapter that will help us appreciate the ending, except I can't remember anything that make the floating book or special piece of driftwood significant.  That's the thing about dreams, sometimes they don't make sense.

Back to Chapter 3, part 2

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fear - Chapter 3, Part 2 - First Encounter

Where were we?  Ah, yes, the abyssal staircase that abruptly appeared in Lowry's front yard.  Let's borrow some more mood music from Silent Hill.

As our protagonist descends the dark flight, he passes through thick and sticky tendrils of mist that wrap around him similarly to cobwebs - "Warm and fibrous, and even vibrant, as though it was alive!"  He's even able to grab a length in his hands, but then "it wriggled and was gone" as if it were a snake slipping away.  Afterward his hands tingle unsettlingly.

It's just a small section from the chapter, only a paragraph and change long, and it doesn't advance the plot in any way.  But it's a good little section, something familiar - mist - being presented in an alien way - as cobwebs.  It highlights how this chapter will consist of ordinary props like stairs, doors and people that are assembled into something threatening and strange, a nightmare assembled from our everyday lives.  It's a moment that subtly wrong, something more effective than any amount of speculation over the number of corpses that might be buried in a plush chair.

Unfortunately... well, let's face it, a lot of our nightmares are considerably lamer than a horror movie or video game assembled by a master of psychological terror.  Sometimes our great fear is of being naked during a final exam, and at other times our subconscious decides to pass the time between midnight and dawn with visions of giant, predatory legumes that leave us scratching our heads in befuddlement when we wake up.  And thus this chapter steadily becomes less scary and less interesting as it goes on.

Stairway Encounter #1 - Lowry hears an "empty" voice calling "Jim!  Jim Lowry!" and he claws through the mist-webs to stumble down the stairs, only to suddenly find himself blinded by a scorching, sourceless light on a great expanse of raw red earth.  There's a boy in a straw hat sitting on a nearby rock and whistling badly as he scratches at the dirt, who soon notices Lowry.


"Hello," said Lowry.

“You ain't got any hat on,” said the boy.

"No.  So I haven't."

"And your hands are dirty," said the boy, returning to his aimless task.

"What's your name?" said Lowry.

"What's yours?" said the boy.

"Mine's Jim."

"That's funny.  Mine's Jim, too.  Only it's really James, you know."

Dream dialogue, where the people talk about something trivial like a hat rather than addressing the question of where on God's green Earth are they or how a chasm suddenly opened in their front yard.  Like I said, it's legitimately dreamy, but not particularly scary.

Boy Jim asks Man Jim if he's looking for something, and so Lowry asks about his hat.  The boy admits that he has seen a hat, on his father's head, and laughs like he made a joke.  Then he offers to show Lowry something and whips out a rabbit's foot, then there is nothing but the rabbit's foot, and then there's nothing but darkness until Lowry takes another step forward and finds himself back on the stairs.  Dream transition, yo.

Lowry briefly wonders why he didn't trek across the red lands until he found the top of the staircase again instead of having to get closer to the bottom, but resolves to keep looking for that door from last time.  He also wonders why he didn't ask Boy Jim about his missing hat/four hours, and I'm not sure whether it's the author or the character overlooking that Lowry kind of did just that.  Whatever, onward and downward.

Stairway Encounter #2 - Lowry finds the door he saw earlier.  It is a Scary Door, with a knocker shaped like Medusa's head, and it makes scary booming sounds that echo up and down the staircase when he uses it.  With the sound of many bolts and latches coming undone it opens to unleash the acrid smell of smoke and a pair of bats that whir past Lowry's head.

Inside is a character who comes just short of being a cliched witch doubled over a bubbling cauldron - through bleary eyes Lowry can just make out an impression of "a wasted face and yellow teeth all broken and awry, of tangled colorless hair and eyes like holes in a skull."  We can only assume some alchemy is going on in there to make the unnatural fumes, but there's no actual mention of a cauldron.  Yet something about this section makes the reader assume there's one bubbling away in the room behind while she stands in the door to talk to Lowry on the stairs.

"Mother, I would like to leave these stairs," said Lowry.

"Mother?  Oh, so you are polite tonight, James Lowry.  So you'd like to flatter me into thinking you are really going to stand there and try to come in.  Hah-hah!  No, you don't, James Lowry."

"Wait, mother, I don't know how you know my name, for I have never been here before, but-"

"You've been on these stairs before.  I never forget a face.  But now you are coming down, and then you were going up, and your name was not James Lowry, and every time you went up another step you would kick away the one below, and when you came here you laughed at me and had me whipped and spat upon my face!  I never forget!"

"That is not true!"

"It will do until there's something that is true in this place."

There.  If there's one good quote from this book, it's probably that last sentence.  Unfortunately, the rest of Lowry and Mother's conversation is much less interesting.

The hag says that a grown man losing his hat is "a very silly thing to do, to do, to do," and of course on top of that she knows he's lost four hours of his life.  She asks if he wants her advice no less than five times in three pages.  And she refuses to let him come in off the staircase.

"You can't leave them.  You walked up them, and now you'll walk down them all the way to the bottom.  You must do it, that's all there is to it.  You can sag and drag and gag and wag, but you've got to go to the bottom.  All the way down.  All the way down.  All the way, way, way, way, way, way, way down!  Down!  Down!  Down!  Want some advice?"

By "advice" she means "old woman mucus," because she asks for his pocket hanky, "violently" blows her nose into it, throws it away for a bat to retrieve, throws it away again for the other bat to retrieve, and eventually stuffs it back into Lowry's coat and straightens his tie.  Remember, this is a surreal nightmare sequence (or is it?) so nothing in it has to make sense.  She also drops a bombshell so terrible that it must be rendered in all italics, and causes a break in the paragraphs - Lowry shouldn't seek his hat, "Because if you find your hat you'll find your four hours, and if you find your four hours you will surely die!"

Lowry can only blink at this revelation and accept Mother's next offer of advice

"Hats are hats and cats are cats, and when the birds sing there is something awry in the world.  Bats are bats and hats are hats, and when it is spring the world is only bracing itself for another death.  Rats are rats and hats are hats, and if you can't walk faster then you'll never be a master.

But Lowry wants to be the very best, like no one ever was!  

Want some advice?"

"Yes, mother."

"Go on down the stairs and you'll meet a man. If you are bound to die, then ask him where you lost your hat."

"He'll tell me?"

"Maybe he will and maybe he won't.  Bats are hats are rats are cats are hats and there is no soup deep enough to drown."

"Drown what, mother?"

"Why, to drown, that's all!  You have a kind face, James Lowry."

"Thank you, mother."

Now here's a terrifying thought - what if the guys behind the Elder Scrolls flipped through this book at some point before coming up with Sheogorath?  'cause this sounds awfully similar to Wabbajack.

The hag goes on to explain that Lowry will meet a second man after the first, though of course "they aren't men, either of them.  They're ideas."  But if Lowry goes all the way down to the bottom of the stairs, he'll most assuredly find the top.  After all, "Hats lead to bats, lead to cats, lead to rats.  Rats are hungry, James Lowry.  Rats will eat you, James Lowry."

Frankly, at this point I'm more annoyed than scared.  The surreality has drowned out any horror, and we're dealing with a disgusting old woman who won't give a straight answer and likes to rhyme and repeat herself, herself, herself.

After asking one last time if Lowry really wants to find his hat, and insulting him by looking up "stubborn" in the thesaurus and reading through the synonyms for it twice, she has one last question for him:

"You don't believe in demons and devils?"

"No, mother."

"You still don't believe in demons or devils?"

"No, mother."

"Then look behind you, James Lowry."

He whirled.

But there was only darkness.

Maybe we can later pick apart the deep symbolism of this scene or discuss how clever it foreshadows the fact that there's a shadow monster living in Lowry's hat, but right now I'm just happy it means the old lady is gone.  Next time, Lowry will continue to stumble along the stairs and bump into more weirdos who will talk for a bit before disappearing.

Man, I'm kinda down now.  The first little part of the chapter was a lot better than the rest of it, and now it's gone.  It's never coming back.  And every page will take us further away from it.

Back to Chapter 3, part 1