This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
It’s no secret that L. Ron Hubbard was an SF author before he invented Dianetics and Scientology – even the Church of Scientology is willing to admit that – but through a combination of his monstrous charlatan creation overtaking the rest of his life’s work in the public imagination, and his last major SF works being the utter disaster of Battlefield Earth and the downright illucid Mission Earth, the place of his early writing in the development of the genre has been glossed over a lot.
This presents a difficulty to anyone trying to piece together the history of the genre. Hubbard’s tendency to wildly overstate his qualifications and accomplishments in more or less every area he turned his hand to – a habit which the Church of Scientology continues on his behalf to this day – complicates any appraisal of his work, but even critical biographies like the hilarious Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller acknowledge that Hubbard was popular amongst his fellow authors, and after all it was through the connections he made in the field that he first promoted Dianetics. On top of that, although like many of his peers he penned a tremendous amount of material and wasn’t really one for finely polishing his works – the realities of the pulp market tended to preclude that – a few of his works do still earn praise from figures in the field, despite his later reputation.
Fear is one of those books. Prefaced with several pages of quotes from significant science fiction authors and editors praising it – providing lots of endorsement quotes is part of the Scientology PR playbook – paperback editions of Fear can be obtained with ease on the second hand market. Presumably, part of the reason for the wide distribution is to reinforce the image of Hubbard as a genius polymath who excelled at every field he turned his hand to, but in addition Fear seems to have been used as the thin end of the wedge – not to sell Scientology as such, but at least to convince readers to explore more of Hubbard’s fiction. After all, the more of his work sold, the more royalties go to Author Services, Inc. – the for-profit corporation which manages Hubbard’s literary estate – and by widely distributing a story like Fear which enjoys a broadly positive critical reception as a taster it’s possible to hook readers who might be intimidated by the massive girth or horrendous reviews of Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth. By comparison, most of Hubbard’s pre-Dianetics work is a bit more hard to find on the second-hand market, presumably because without the plaudits Fear has won it there is less demand for them.
But is there anything to it, or were the likes of Stephen King, Jack Williamson, and Ramsey Campbell taking leave of good taste (or quoted out of context)?
The protagonist of Fear is James Lowry, a professor of ethnology at Atworthy, a well-established (if somewhat conservative) university. Lowry has recently returned from an expedition into foreign parts, where he had suffered a nasty bout of malaria which he is still recovering from, and a strongly-worded article under his name in the local paper in which he denounced belief in devils, demons and the supernatural in general as mere primitive superstition has landed him with hot water with the university’s president, Jebson. After being told by Jebson he is being let go at the end of the semester, Lowry finds himself in a foul mood; worried about how his wife Mary will take the news, and ends up visiting his old friend (and colleague at the university) Tommy Williams, who gently ribs him about the article and suggests that the demons and witches might not be so keen on what Lowry had written about them.
After a momentary lapse in concentration following his chat with Tommy, Lowry abruptly realises that he’s lost his hat – and, in the process of getting his bearings, discovers that he has also lost all memory of the four hours in between hm leaving Tommy’s place and discovering he’d lost his hat. From there on in the novel descends into a series of increasingly expansive phantasmagorical visions experienced by Lowry, in which ghosts, witches, demons and vampires become frighteningly real to him. He is warned that if he finds his hat, he will find his missing time – but he would also lose his life. Is it possible that Lowry has, through a cosmic coincidence, become the Entity through which all life on Earth expresses itself, with Tommy and Mary representing a demonic conspiracy against all life? Or is there a much more mundane explanation for all this?
So, this is a psychological horror novel and it involves a plot twist which you can probably guess from the above if you’ve read, watched, or played through enough such stories. (Come to think of it, “it’s a surreal psychological horror story, kind of like a 1940s take on Silent Hill 2, only it turns out the author is also the creator of Scientology” is a pretty decent plot twist in itself.) The visions that Lowry undergoes over the course of the book as his unconscious mind desperately tries to protect him from the missing four hours are so vividly feverish that it’s instantaneously clear that something decidedly weird is happening, substantially more weird than a conventional monster running around, and as Lowry’s grip on reality fails increasingly and his internal world becomes more taken up with just him, Tommy and Mary, the ultimate explanation probably isn’t the surprise today that it would have been at the time of first writing.
At the same time, whilst Hubbard can’t claim to have invented psychological horror of this sort (Poe’s The Telltale Heart, offers some precedent, as does the plot point in The Moonstone of critical actions being taken by a character subconsciously), I can think of few precedents which launch themselves into surreal territory as bizarre as that featured in Fear. Hubbard’s knack for coming up with troubling images and inferences – as well as a wildly megalomaniacal cosmology for Lowry to cling to just before his final breakdown – would surely be the envy of many authors, and it seems likely that it influenced some significant later works. For instance, the terminal delusion in which everyone Lowry encounters turns into Tommy or Mary is reminiscent of the nightmare ending of the Philip K. Dick short story Upon the Dull Earth, and Dick would also play with a similar idea in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and it seems entirely possible that Dick was consciously or otherwise influenced by Hubbard here
Of course, precisely because of the subject matter it’s interesting to see where Fear seems to anticipate the ideas which would inform Dianetics and Scientology, and there’s a few commonalities here and there which do seem significant to these later works (particularly the earlier, less baroque takes on the subject Hubbard would publish in Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science and Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. You have, for starters, the idea of events happening to a character who has no conscious memory of them, but where the subconscious does have some recollection of the events, and as a result unfortunate symptoms plague the sufferer which can only be resolved if memory of the incidents is restored. Although not enormously original – the idea of the subconscious mind was very much in currency by 1940, when Fear was written – the specific idea of retrieving memories from the subconscious is integral to Dianetics. In addition, Dianetics is based on the idea that the conscious, rational analytical mind can crash like a PC with a dodgy Windows installation under traumatic or stressful situations and surrender control to the reactive mind, which is subconscious and irrational – and Lowry’s actual actions during his lapses from rationality certainly seem to have been extreme and irrational when we finally find out what he has done.
If that weren’t enough, the novel also prefigures Hubbard’s initial assumptions about how the reactive midn works. One particular avatar of his unconscious that Lowry encounters has a creepy habit of carrying on weird conversations through a sort of rhyming free association; for the purposes of Dianetics, Hubbard took one interesting example of illogic from here and made it the specific mechanism by which the reactive mind “thinks” (making it almost completely useless as any sort of “mind” at all, but there you go). In fact, this seems to be a general example of how Hubbard arrived at Dianetics – taking analogies or concepts useful in a few specific situations, and making them absolutely universal and immutable rules.
There’s a few other commonalities here and there – for instance, there’s some intensely creepy hypnosis stuff in there which prefigures some of Hubbard’s paranoid theories about hypnotic conspiracies in Science of Survival (though Hubbard wasn’t above performing a little stage hypnosis himself, he seems to have had made a big thing of promoting hypnosis as this terrifying, evil science, and on insisting that Dianetic auditing has nothing in common with hypnosis even though it blatantly does). At the same time, there’s one big difference between Fear and Hubbard’s Dianetics/Scientology writing: in the latter case, he was writing to mystify and to sound cleverer than the reader, whilst with the story he’s writing for clarity and readability, and by the standards of the 1940s pulps he does a decent job of that. Some of the romantic dialogue between Mary and Lowry is a little stilted and unnatural, though arguably there’s good plot reasons why that should be the case, and otherwise it’s decidedly readable stuff.
My edition of Fear comes with a couple of bonus short stories: the first is Borrowed Glory, a brief romantic fantasy tale with a pessimistic ending in which an angel empowered to grant any wish for the space of 48 hours tries to demonstrate that human beings are basically good sorts at heart who don’t deliberately choose suffering if they can help it and fails dismally, and the second is the heavily fictionalised biography of the author. Certainly I’d advise buying any Hubbard works you fancy reading second-hand, since Author Services Inc. (and its parent company, the Church of Spiritual Technology – the Scientology faction that owns all of Hubbard’s IP) isn’t really an organisation many people would feel good about funding, but at the same time I’d say Fear doesn’t deserve to be lumbered with such an infamous author. One can only hope that the collapse of the Scientology empire will lead to an intellectual property fire sale, bringing Hubbard’s pulp fiction back into availability through less ethically dubious channels.