You know, L. Ron Hubbard’s gotten a bad rap. Not necessarily his work for the Church of Scientology (which people are going to have their own opinion about, anyway), but his life before Dianetics. You see it time and again in every internet bio of him that he was just some “obscure science-fiction author” who just happened to stumble onto the biggest money making concern since sliced bread. Putting everything else aside, that’s simply not true. Not only was he one of the founding fathers of modern sci-fi, but that wasn’t even what he was famous for.
During the thirties and forties Hubbard was a well-known adventure fiction writer, with stories in just about every pulp magazine of note. He was so in demand he eventually created up to 15 separate pen names just so readers wouldn’t think they were being gypped with an all-Hubbard issue, which happened at least once. He easily moved across genres, from westerns to spy stories to, yes, groundbreaking science fiction. And, in 1940, he turned to horror, and produced what would be, until Battlefield Earth, his most famous novel.
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Fear is a book that you might say is “made of tropes”. Many of the now standard horror gimmicks were introduced here, or at least popularized. Love the way Stephen King’s protagonists try to explain away supernatural phenomena with pop psychology? Fear was there first, with side effects of malaria. Ever watch Pan’s Labyrinth and find yourself intrigued, not just by the hellish Wonderland that Ofelia enters, but how she snaps back to reality at the worst possible times? She and Professor Lowry will have much to discuss. Feel for Coraline when she learned everything was just an illusion for her benefit? Fear. A nightmarish place where everyone’s the same person? Check. Infernal forces just randomly deciding to fuck with you for the hell of it? Check. A slow-burning shift from a mundane setting to a fantastic nightmare? External forces tormenting you with cryptic messages and tasks? Being haunted by random heavy-handed symbolism? Everyone you know and love turned into Stepford-ized versions of themselves? The revelation that a significant chunk of the story has been the fever dream of an axe wielding psychopath? Check, check, check, check and double check.
Sure, these ideas may have been used before, but not in a horror story, and certainly not all at once.
Fear tells the story of James Lowry, an ethnologist who loves his job a lot, except for the part about primitive peoples not conforming with modern, Christian views of the world. So, when he writes an article for the local paper about how ancient pagans were crazy (Slowest. News cycle. Ever.), the otherworldly beasties say, “Well, we’ll show him.”
Or do they?
The little devils render him unconscious for a few hours, and to add insult to injury, steal his hat. He eventually comes around and receives a message, saying that if he finds his hat, he’ll learn what happened while he was out, but if he learns that, they’ll kill him. Then they presumably said, “Sleep tight, asshole,” and high-fived.
Then things get a little wonky. Among other things, Lowry gets trapped on a never-ending stairway to Hell, sent on an attempted burglary by the ghost of some corpse he dug up once, made to witness the funeral scene from The Hearse, and learns that his best friend, and possibly his wife, are basically the aliens from V. Also, just about everyone keeps pestering him to just buy a new hat, already.
Oh, and there’s also a chance that the demons are just making Lowry imagine all this and something much worse is going on in the background.
Stylistically, this is vintage Hubbard at his finest. Before he left genre fiction in the ‘50s, his writing was remarkable for being able to get across complex ideas and massive amounts of technical information in plain English, using as few words as possible. Sure, it suffers from the one quirk Hubbard couldn’t get rid of: the beginning spends far too long setting the scene, but once the story kicks in, it grabs you by the neck and never lets go. This is definitely a one-sit read.
And some parts of it are kinda hokey, but the early ‘40s were a corny time to be alive. Just be glad it wasn’t written in the ‘20s, then we’d have to listen to guys in foxtail coats trying to fight off evil with 23 skidoo or something. Shudder.
Fear is currently available in a double-feature edition with Hubbard’s other masterpiece from this era, Typewriter In The Sky.
Be sure to check out Michael’s new novel, Kingdom Rattus, now available from many fine internet retailers.