Monday, November 10, 2014

Fear Itself

Fear bills itself as a "novel of suspense," a chiller, a horror story.  We're supposed to enjoy our reactions to all the... uh, scariness, instead of spending too much time or effort trying to figure out whether Lowry's being bedeviled by devils or be-malaria'd by malaria.  The questions about the cause are less important than the effects, in other words.  You could, for example, put some thought into puzzling out how the Overlook Hotel works, but it's fully possible to enjoy The Shining without doing so.  The characters in that story certainly aren't worried about why the hotel is full of bad juju, they just want to survive.

The problem is, Fear is a horror story built around a specific question: what happened to Lowry's hat?  I mean, his lost four hours.  All the supernatural "spooky" stuff is merely the window dressing for Lowry's quest to discover what he did that Saturday afternoon.  And as a mystery covered in Halloween decorations, Fear is a disappointment.

There is such a thing as a "Fair Play" Whodunit, a mystery that is solvable using the clues presented in the story.  Fear obviously isn't one, since it bombs the very first requirement, that the reader never hears the thoughts of the killer.  But the real big annoyance is Mary, and specifically how the reveal at the end relates to her.

See, Hubbard is competent enough to sprinkle little hints that Lowry might have a "motive" to kill his wife over the course of the story - the flashes of jealousy, the revelation that Tommy tried to woo her before she picked Lowry, which Lowry hasn't quite gotten over.  But then Hubbard cheats.  We never get anything that would place Mary at the scene of the crime, and Lowry has no choice but to completely forget that he has an upcoming birthday, just to ensure that the reader wouldn't be able to guess that Mary was at Tommy's house that afternoon to plan a surprise party.

It's sort of like, spoiler warning, if Shyamalan had cut the opening bit in The Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis gets shot so we couldn't guess that he actually died from his wound and was a ghost for the rest of the movie.  If we found out that Willis was dead at the same time we learned he'd gotten shot in the first place, do you think Sixth Sense would be remembered for having one of the greatest twist endings in cinema?  Or would Shyamalan's reputation have never risen high enough for his subsequent movies to ruin?

And what about the jealous, malaria-fueled murder itself?  Did we get any foreshadowing that would help us anticipate that?  There was that bit about Lowry breaking a window as a kid, but do we ever see him reacting aggressively to nasty shocks?  Quite the contrary.  Even though he eventually girds his loins to confront his fear and solve the mystery of his hat, the book basically boils down to Lowry running away from the things he encounters while attempting to do so.  Well, Lowry is aggressive for that one part in the end where he tries to defeat Tommy and steal his essence back, but that ends with Lowry getting his ass kicked.  It certainly isn't something that suggests Lowry could subdue and axe-murder two adults.

The author at least makes some effort to foreshadow Mary and Tommy's fate, and not just through Lowry's hallucinations of Mary crying his name.  Lowry never actually eats anything Mary prepares for him over the course of the story, he either fixes himself a sandwich or experiences wobbling plates whenever he tries to spear a meal with his fork, forcing him to go to he diner.  Lowry gives an excuse for Mary's absence in church on Sunday, and when she and Tommy visit his office on Monday, nobody else is around to see or react to them.

But what about Tommy?  Did anyone give Lowry strange looks when he came in to church, sat down on a pew with a large space around him, repeatedly looked at nothing off to one side of him, and then walked out while clutching at nothing all the way home?  The author doesn't say.  The author can't say, it might spoil the surprise.  And that's kinda cheaty.

So Fear the mystery is a disappointment, is what I'm getting at.  Whether Fear the horror story works for you will probably depend on your tastes.  As I said before, I feel Fear's at its best when it's building up to the what it thinks is scary, like with that nightmare sequence after Lowry comes home from Tommy's house.  It's comparatively restrained, more psychological, more authentically dream-like.  But dreams aren't necessarily scary - Lowry just kinda rolls with the dream-logic when conversing with a knight in full plate, or a stereotypical witch.  And when it's time to unleash the scares, all Hubbard has for us are a hangman, or blood on the floor, or fake vampire teeth in people's mouths.

I guess that could be scary, if Fear is your first horror novel, and you've never watched TV or a movie.  But compared to the works of HP Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe, two phenomenal American horror writers who came before this "classic" of the genre, Fear comes across as pretty juvenile.  Seriously, an invisible something brushing the narrator's leg?  Disembodied laughter?  A high-speed factory assembly?  A street full of movie set buildings?  A world full of Tommy? 

We could nitpick over whether malaria could really addle someone enough to kill their wife and best friend in a jealous frenzy, or the plausibility of someone mentally deleting their memory of that murder and going on to hallucinate his victims so he'd never suspect they were dead, but it's not really important.  The bottom line is, Fear succeeds as a horror story about as well as Battlefield Earth succeeds as a sci-fi epic, and Fear's mystery elements are about as well-presented as the "romance" in Mission Earth.

Back to Chapter 8, part 2


  1. If we're comparing Hubbard to Lovecraft (it's like comparing manure to ice cream), the ending of this story gives me The Outsider vibes. He spends the story running from monsters, only to realize in the end that he was the monster. A perfect use of the "pity and fear" formula that makes some of the most beloved horror characters. It's a reminder of mankind's fundamental loneliness and insecurities, tapping into the desire of acceptance and disappointment of rejection from society we can all empathize with... oh, now I'm only talking about the deformed monster in The Outsider. I don't empathize with the human James Lowry in Fear at all. He was just a homicidal loony having a mental breakdown.

  2. Replies
    1. I certainly hope so! What I'm trying to figure out is the best way to do that.

      The near-miss with Blogger's policy toward adult content blogs was alarming, and I would like a better way to manage and organize all these posts, so I'm trying to decide whether to stick with this blog or start something elsewhere.

      I also need a book to talk about, and I'm not finished with the Hubbard novel I was considering, Buckskin Brigades. It seems kind of "meh" to be honest, so I'll have to decide whether it's worth sporking. Happily the man was as prolific as he was inept, so there' no shortage of alternatives to choose from.

      At any rate, once things get moving again I'll make an announcement. Thanks for your continued interest!

    2. Well, if you move on to another place be sure to leave some bread crumbs here for us to follow!