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

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