Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fear - Chapter 7, Part 3 - Epicenter

So last time we learned that Jim Lowry is the Entity, the one true living man, the motive force powering everything and everyone around him.  And his "best friend" Tommy has really been leading the others the whole time, and is even stealing Lowry's soul!  And that the only thing worse than a sexualized tweenager is a sexualized four-year-old, thank you very much, Hubbard.

Lowry's still shaken by all these revelations, and leaves his office at noon out of force of habit more than anything else.  But while he's doused with dread from all this weirdness, he also feels strangely liberated, invincible even.

It was not unlike a religious fanatic's trust in a personally invested god, a thing which seemed very foreign to Lowry.  And as he walked through the hurrying crowds of students in the halls and down the stairs, he began to be conscious of his own size and strength.

"I, a rugged, adventurous thirty-eight-year-old, could beat the crap out of any of these kids!"  I'm not exaggerating much: Lowry sizes up some oncoming athletes and is pleased when he realizes he's both taller and heavier than they are.

Odd he had never taken that personal quality of his into account.  It was like finding a gold mine or having a beautiful woman suddenly confess her love, or hearing a million people stand up and cheer themselves into exhaustion for one.

Raw gold, hot women (in love with you and presumably willing to have sex, not necessarily you being in love with them), and the howling adoration of the masses - these are a few of Hubbard's favorite things.

But this book isn't called I'm Huge and Powerful, so scary things need to happen.  Lowry passes a student who - oh, this is a great sentence - has parked himself on the steps "so that the penetrating languor of sunlight could caress his back," which is a purple way of saying he's taking advantage of a handy sunbeam.  But when Lowry draws closer, ominous strings, he discovers that the kid's newspaper is totally blank, scare chord.

Lowry is troubled for all of a few seconds, but the exercise of walking restores that invincible feeling quickly, and "he gradually forgot" about the incident.  He passes some more people doing mundane things, but then Lowry gets a "strange feeling" and turns around.  And for the briefest fraction of a second, it seems to him that a kid delivering an envelope, a guy mowing the lawn, and a crowd of chatting students, had all paused before continuing.

Which is creepy from a purely visual standpoint, but doesn't Lowry have ears?  Wouldn't he have noticed if the conversation suddenly stopped, or the lawnmower ceased movement?

Anyway, this incident provokes some thought as Lowry continues, and he wonders if his imagination is throwing up some false memories or something.  This is a bit odd coming from someone who, you might remember, had a chat with a little creepy girl who emerged from cracks in the wall and a chorus of disembodied, snarling voices just a few pages ago.  At any rate, Old Billy Watkins pops by again to ask if Lowry's feeling better, and Lowry thanks him for his concern.

And then there's a random break in the paragraphs, before Lowry gets that odd feeling again, and looks back over his shoulder.  Sure enough, Old Billy is standing "limp as a scarecrow" for an instant before continuing on his way.  "That was very strange, thought Lowry," who just last night followed a Spanish ghost up a sheer cliff and into a dark and bloody temple dedicated to pinching women's hinders.

Good news is, the book's almost over, so we won't have to put up with Lowry for much longer.

This terrifying game of Red Light, Green Light continues when Lowry reaches the cafe frequented by the faculty, and sure enough he opens the door to "Silence.  But only for an instant" before the sound of conversation and cutlery hitting crockery kicks up.  He chats with some nameless other professors who share their sympathies over Lowry's sacking, which Lowry repays with stories from his expedition to the scorching Yucat√°n Desert.  He's suffused with a feeling of "allness" at the end of his meal, the knowledge that he's improved his friendships with all these people.  Or maybe it's the chicken salad sandwich.

At any rate, the only downer is that when Lowry tried to listen to a conversation from a table behind him, he heard nonsense, not words, almost as though everyone else in the diner, and indeed the world, are automatons that exist to create the illusion that Lowry, the only real person on the planet, is not alone.

There's a particularly cheap attempt at a scare when Lowry leaves the diner and sees two drivers slumped over the wheels of their cars - "These people must be dead!" - but of course they're just off for a split-second before Lowry's presence enables them to move.  When he looks back at the diner everyone's similarly slumped over until Lowry takes a step toward them, and then when he tries to buy a newspaper he finds that they're all blank, but neither the vendor or other customers seem to notice.  What a bother.

Lowry abruptly decides to go visit a stream he remembers from his youth, because I think at this point, the author has stopped trying to build a coherent narrative and is just throwing in whatever spooky ideas he's come up with over the course of the train ride he allegedly wrote this book on.  So off Lowry goes, deciding that the recent stop-go weirdness is his weary brain taking a moment to register events instead of processing them instantaneously.  When he gets to that refreshing stream, cool grass and swaying willows, Lowry remembers that it was all bulldozered to make way for a cellulose factory, but stretches out on the grass anyway without a second thought.  Guy can only try and rationalize only so much weirdness in a day, I suppose.

So Lowry spend some time next to the pool with the "City Water Supply.  Do Not Contaminate" sign that he routinely ignored by swimming in it (eww), and finds himself reminiscing about his past self and his old awe of his father.  Would you like an utterly random paragraph about aging?

The thought amused him that he was the image of his own early awe, and he dwelt at length upon what he would have said to the boy in overalls who had lain long hours in this very spot, how he would have told him that the mystery of the elder world was no mystery at all, but an uncertain sort of habit of dignity, perhaps grown out of the image of youth, perhaps as an excuse for diminished physical vigor, perhaps as a handy shield by which one could hold off the world.  How little that boy need have worried, after all.  The state of being "grown up" was a state beset by as many worries, and just as false, as those of childhood.

It looks like as early as 1940, Hubbard really wanted to be a philosopher.  Alas, he's stuck for now/then conveying his thoughts through lousy fiction, rather than... well, I guess the last books he wrote were also lousy fiction filled with author tracts.  And then there's the whole "space opera is the genetic memory of Scientology's backstory" thing.  So I guess whatever Hubbard did had an element of lousy fiction to it.

Anyway, Lowry's reverie is interrupted by a hammering sound and the roaring of truck engines, and things get goofy.  He looks up to see two hundred workers rushing about at high speed, constructing a factory "a foot at a time," so that before his very eyes the cellulose factory is thrown up and the peaceful stream of his youth is torn down.  "The plant was going full blast.  The willows had vanished.  The stream of yesterday was a concrete aqueduct!"

When a dazed Lowry turns and goes back to down, he starts to feel "a nausea of concern" about this.  Suddenly suspicious, he takes a back alley to a street he's never visited, and dammit, all the houses are false fronts, just like a movie set!  All the "extras" are even flummoxed that Lowry's back where he shouldn't be, and try to hastily finish the houses!

This is so ridiculous that even had the rest of the book been properly scary, this little moment would've undone it.  It's like Gris' hallucinations with Bugs Bunny in Mission Earth, something so jarringly out-of-tune with the rest of the narrative that it all comes to a crashing halt.

I think we can learn something from this.  A common argument about Mission Earth is that its badness resulted from Hubbard being insulated from criticism by his followers, sort of like George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, except in Hubbard's case it was a literal cult following.  But this book, written near the start of his career and before Hubbard went off the deep end, has no such excuse.  It was written, it was edited, and it's still not very good.

Lowry returns to Main Street, but there's that cry of  "Jim!  Jim!  Jim!  Oh, my God!  Jim!"  Everyone on the street is sprawled out on the ground, while Mary is running along with her hair and eyes wild, sobbing in terror.  When she sees him she leaps into his arms and cries with relief, and Lowry holds her tight, stroking her hair as the rest of the townspeople return to life around them, and I can't help but feel this scene would be a lot more effective if we'd cut to it straight after the diner, before the silly things happened.

And then Tommy swaggers up, and we get our climactic confrontation.  Or something.

"Hello, Jim."  And then, in concern, "Is something wrong with Mary?"

"You know what's wrong with Mary, Tom Williams."

Tommy looked at him oddly.  "I don't get you, old man."

"Not that you wouldn't try," said Jim with a cold grin at his own humor.  "I've had enough of this."

"Enough of what?"

"You took something from me.  I want it back.  I know about this, you see." 

Lowry wastes no words, and outright accuses Tommy of being a thief, of stealing a part of Lowry that made everything right with the world.  Tommy laughs that his "friend" has finally caught on, but, fangs extended, explains his more "communistic attitude" towards... chunks of Lowry, I guess.  Soul stuff?  Animus? 

Terminology later, fight scene now.  Lowry gets Mary out of the way and grabs hold of Tommy's coat... no, wait, you should see this.

Lowry put Mary to one side.  He snatched out and grabbed Tommy's coat and hauled him close, aiming a blow.  Somehow, Tommy twisted from the grasp and, in his turn, struck hard with his cane.  For an instant the world, for Lowry, was ink.  But he came up in an effort to lunge at Tommy's throat.  Again the cane felled him.  Stunned now, he swayed on his hands and knees, trying to clear his fogged senses.  Once more the cane struck him and he felt the pavement strike against his cheek.

See?  It's a fight scene, but it isn't a Hubbard Fight Scene.  It's all contained in a single paragraph, and there isn't an exclamation point to be found! 

And... I dunno, as overused and annoying as the Hubbard Fight Scenes got, I think this is actually a case where one would work.  Breaking up the flow of the narrative after Lowry gets clonked on the head would help emphasize the impact, har har, of the blow.  This is the big, climactic showdown between the Entity and the leader of the "others," two people who thought they were friends, not the nth "Jettero Heller curbstomps someone" scene.  This is the one fight you can really afford to draw out, break down, make it a blow-by-blow event.

Well, Lowry ends up like Senator Sumner and is lying there, unable to move, feeling like he's bleeding to death.  Fanged Tommy leans in close to smirk at him, seeming "twice as big and strong as before."  Then Mary looks at Tommy, and Lowry watches her face change from an expression of wonder to "agreeable satisfaction," and she and Tommy walk away, arm-in-arm.

Lowry knows why.

She was nothing but a puppet herself, animated more than any of the rest because she had been more with a source.  And when Tommy had taken part of him she had begun to divide her attention between them, for either one could animate her.  And now that Tommy possessed an "allness" there could be no question as to which one she would follow.

Strangely, realizing that his wife is but a puppet doesn't seem to affect Lowry's affection for her.  He still rushed to comfort her when she was spazzing her way down the street, and he still wants to get her back from Tommy.  Then again, maybe Lowry wants her back because she's his puppet, thank you very much.

There's another effect of Lowry's defeat - now that Tommy has stolen his essence or whatever, all the other puppets around him aren't motivated by his presence, and are only twitching slightly instead of moving again.  Or in other words, "For him the world was nearly dead!"

So between the nearly-dead world, Mary being stolen from him, Tommy's betrayal, and getting his ass kicked and soul siphoned, Lowry's in pretty bad shape.

It was agony to drag himself along, but he did, inch by inch, fumbling over the bodies which lay sprawled in the clear sunlight. He became aware of how hot it was getting and of a great weariness. If he could just rest for a little while, he might be able to find strength. He saw a bush in a yard where the cover was thick and he crawled into the coolness. Just to rest a little while and then to find Tommy and Mary!

Or maybe it's the malaria.


  1. Communistic attitude? Was the red scare a thing in 1940? I thought world war II was still going on until around 1942. I don't think Hubbard knew what the word communist meant.

    1. Russian communism alone pre-dated WWII significantly, gaining much attention by 1917. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-communism for more information.