Fear: Hubbard’s classic horror thriller demands to be read at a breakneck pace

Fear by L. Ron HubbardFear by L. Ron Hubbard science fiction book reviewsFear by L. Ron Hubbard

The professional reputation of Nebraska-born writer L. Ron Hubbard, it seems to me, has taken a double hit since his heyday in the 1940s. Hubbard, of course, was the founder of the cultish sect known as Scientology, and ever since the release of his initial article on Dianetics in the May 1950 issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction, and the founding of the group two years later, his name has been unavoidably linked to this oft-maligned pseudoreligion. And then there was the notorious film version of Hubbard’s 1982 doorstop of a novel Battlefield Earth, featuring Scientologist John Travolta in a picture that most viewers seem to have found dreadful, if not laughable. (Full confession: I have never read the book, whose 1,000+-page length has long intimidated as well as fascinated me, or seen the film.)

But those folks who find it an easy matter to disparage Hubbard seem to forget that the man had a very long and respected career years before the Dianetics article and decades before that whopper novel were written. Indeed, the man’s bibliography, encompassing the fields of sci-fi, fantasy, Westerns, horror, mystery and adventure, is so huge that I despair of giving it an enumeration; let’s just say that he wrote some 30 novels and hundreds of short stories, and refer those who want to know more to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database for further elucidation. As for me, I had previously only read Hubbard’s fantasy classic Slaves of Sleep, which first appeared in Campbell’s Unknown magazine in 1939 and in an expanded novel form nine years later. I had enjoyed the novel, although I did have some quibbles regarding it, and figuring that it was time to give Hubbard another shot, decided to pop for his 1940 novel Fear.

Why Fear? Well, I’d read many good things about this one, and from some names that I highly respect. The book is featured in James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock’s excellent overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, for one thing. Author Stephen King has called it “a classic tale of creeping, surreal menace and horror;” Tim Powers deems it a “terribly powerful story;” Ray Bradbury said it’s “a true scare;” Robert Bloch called it “Hubbard’s finest work;” and Robert Silverberg has judged it “a classic masterpiece of psychological horror.” Sounds good, right? Anyway, Fear, as had Slaves of Sleep, made its first appearance in Unknown, but in the July 1940 issue; again, a longer version would be published many years later. As legend has it, Hubbard wrote the entire novella while on a transcontinental train trip, and was only 29 at the time. The issue of Unknown that it originally appeared in must surely be a highly collectable item today, especially since it also featured the initial appearance of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s The Land of Unreason (another fantasy that I had some quibbles with!).

Out of print for some time, Fear can today be easily purchased via the fine folks at Galaxy Press — which imprint seems to exist solely for the sake of keeping Hubbard’s legacy alive — and in a very reasonably priced, typo-free, handsome edition, as well. And if I was not nearly as wowed by the book as those respected authors above seem to have been, I yet found much to enjoy and appreciate in it.

The novel introduces us to a 38-year-old college professor named James Lowry, who teaches ethnology at Atworthy College. Lowry, when we first meet him, has just returned from the Yucatan with a case of malaria, and has recently had an article published in which he mocks the existence of devils and demons. The college president finds the very nature of the article a scandalous disgrace, and Lowry is summarily given the sack. He goes to the abode of his best friend and fellow professor Tommy Williams for consolation, but while later returning home to his wife Mary, suddenly realizes that he left Tommy’s house at 2:45 … and that it is now 6:45. He has somehow lost four hours, as well as his hat, with no memory of what has transpired to him! And thus begins Lowry’s nightmarish odyssey.

After walking down the stairs of his front porch later that night, he finds that those stairs lead him deep into the Earth, where he encounters a witch, a knight, and the historical hangman Jack Ketch. He is warned that to find his hat, and regain those four hours, will lead to his demise! Back in his home, Lowry begins to see bloblike … things out of the corners of his eyes. He hears uncanny laughter, and his breakfast plates move disconcertingly when he tries to eat. During another psychedelic, hallucinatory journey, Lowry is led by a 300-year-dead monk up into the mountains, where he witnesses some kind of unholy convocation. He sees his own headstone, with the year of his death — 1940 — engraved upon it. Back home yet again, he notices that both Mary and Tommy have grown fangs, and learns, from an evil-looking 4-year-old girl, that he is nothing less than “the Entity” … the one person amongst all the teeming billions who can control reality. And sadly, for poor James Lowry, his hellish experiences have only just begun…

While reading Fear, the reader will doubtlessly be wondering if Lowry’s experiences are merely some kind of malarial fugue, or if perhaps, as Williams maintains, it just isn’t wise to mock demons and other supernatural forces. I would never dream of revealing the startling surprises that Hubbard holds up his sleeve, but will say that when the story first appeared in Unknown, it was under the subhead “A psychological fantasy.” And if you think you know where Hubbard’s story is going, trust me, you’re wrong. Still, for a novel that has co-opted the word “fear” for its title, Fear is never all that scary … except, perhaps, in retrospect, after the final page has been turned. Rather, I would term it more “bizarre” and “freaky,” as opposed to genuinely frightening, although the fact that Lowry is not even safe from physical manifestations while sitting in the pew of his own church does go far in dramatizing his dire predicament.

Hubbard writes simply but very effectively here, and his book practically demands to be read at a breakneck pace. He is not afraid of making up his own words (such as “beration”) or of using them in novel ways (or is “castanet” really a verb?). He also throws in occasional words of wisdom that the reader may feel compelled to highlight (my favorite: “The state of being ‘grown up’ was a state beset by as many worries, and just as false, as those of childhood”). Fear, it seems to me, might be very successfully adapted to the big screen, and it is frankly remarkable that it has not been given the cinematic treatment already. Hollywood, are you listening? Summing up their article on the book, Cawthorn & Moorcock tell us, “As a case-study or as a pure fantasy, it is as dark as they come,” and I suppose that I would have to agree with that statement. In many ways prefiguring his initial article on Dianetics, Fear will surely linger long in the memory, and may even be more enjoyable when given a second read. My only real quibble with it, actually, is that Lowry and his loving wife are shown to be sleeping in separate bedrooms. Now THAT’S what I call scary! In all, though, a devilishly clever piece of work from L. Ron Hubbard.

But wait … this volume is not quite finished yet! As an added treat, this Galaxy Press edition also offers, for our delectation, one of Hubbard’s many short stories. The story is “Borrowed Glory,” which first appeared in the October 1941 issue of Unknown. (Actually, by that point, the name of Campbell’s magazine had been changed to Unknown Worlds.) In this one, Tuffaron the Mad Genii engages in a little wager with an angel named Georgette. Tuffaron maintains that humans are responsible for their own suffering and cannot be made happy, no matter what is given to them. Georgette disagrees, and so the bet is sealed. Georgette comes to Earth and, for 48 hours, gives youth and beauty to a 66-year-old, unemployed and miserably lonely spinster named Meredith Smith. Meredith is told that her every wish will be granted for two days, but that at the end of the ordained period, everything that she has been given must be taken away. Smith jumps at the offer, and is soon seen riding through Central Park in a shiny limo; an elegantly dressed, beautiful woman. She meets the man of her dreams, too, leading to an ironic twist of an ending in this effortlessly charming and affecting story.

And, oh … for all you folks who would pooh-pooh Hubbard’s skills as a wordsmith, check out this early passage, in which Meredith is initially described:

[She] was not unlike the shawl which covered her — a lovely weave but tattered edges and thin warp and a bleach which comes with time … She had been useless. She had run a typewriter. She had been nothing to life. She had never known beauty; she had never known laughter; she had never known pain; and she would die without ever having lived, she would die without a single tear to fall upon her going. She had never been known, to be forgotten. Yesterdays reached back in a long gray chain like pages written with a single word and without punctuation. Tomorrow stretched out gray, gray and then black. A long, long time black. And she was forgotten before she was gone and she had nothing to forget except emptiness…

Whew! Almost makes Eleanor Rigby sound like a party animal, right?

Described on the back cover of this Galaxy Press volume as a “chilling horror short story,” “Borrowed Glory,” it seems to me, is, rather, more of a lovely fantasy, albeit with an O. Henry-ish conclusion. Again, though, a most impressive piece of work. Taken together, Fear and “Borrowed Glory” may very well accomplish its publisher’s mission: to reclaim the good reputation of one of the giants of science fiction’s Golden Age. Next up for me, I hope, will be another of Hubbard’s legendary fantasies from 1940: Typewriter in the Sky. Stay tuned…

Published in 1940. Professor James Lowry didn’t believe in spirits, or witches, or demons. Not until a gentle spring evening when his hat disappeared, and suddenly he couldn’t remember the last four hours of his life. Now, the quiet university town of Atworthy is changing – slightly at first, then faster and more frighteningly each time he tries to remember. Lowry is pursued by a dark, secret evil that is turning his whole world against him while it whispers a warning from the shadows: If you find your hat you’ll find your four hours. If you find your four hours then you will die…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. Sandy, the Church of Scientology still has some legal hold on much of Hubbard’s work, and it’s possible no one in Hollywood outside of that group can get their hands on this property.

    I did not read Battlefield Earth but I did watch (part of) the movie; and it is so dreadful that it is laughable.

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