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

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