FEAR (1940) by L. Ron Hubbard

Hubbard-Fear-nepWell, I didn’t think I’d ever review a book by L. Ron Hubbard here at Fedora! But this early tale of suspense and horror was written well before the author made his fortune by creating sci-fi religions, and has had some great reviews. Plus it deals with both amnesia (and I’m a sucker for this particular plot device) and superstition in the modern world, which ever since I read Fritz Leiber’s sublime Conjure Wife has always intrigued me. So, here goes. One day college professor James Lowry’s hat disappears …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“You belong to us, now, so go right along.”
“What are you going to do with me?”
“You’ll find out”

Lowry is an ethnologist and a bit of a maverick on the Atworthy College campus and has just created a minor storm by publishing an article that rubbishes people’s superstitious beliefs in witches,  demons, goblins and the like. For his trouble he gets dismissed and so heads off to see his best friend Tommy, who warns him that he should not dabble with things more powerful than himself. Lowry has just had a physical and seems in excellent health, but suffers from recurring bouts of malaria so when he starts to feel a bad chill coming he has a drink and heads off home to see his wife. Four hours later he wakes up on a sidewalk not far from home having lost his hat, covered in dirt, with scratches on his arm – and with absolutely no idea what happened during this blackout. His wife, Mary, tries to put him to bed but he heads off into the night, leading to a long and surreal section in which he walks to the bottom of his garden and into the unknown …

“To be polite we call this psychology, but, in reality, you know and I know that we are studying the black goblins and fiendish ghouls which lie in pretend slumber just out of sight of our conscious mind”

Hubbard_Fear-Typewriter_pbFrom then onwards the story alternates between Lowry’s attempt to continue with his ordinary life and his continuing disorientation as visions of spirits and goblins assail him. As the story becomes increasingly solipsistic, Lowry comes to believe that he truly is the centre of the universe and that his ‘power’ is being sucked away by Tommy, who may even have designs on Mary. This part of the novel, in which the unshackling of man’s latent primordial power starts to predominate, will of course be very familiar to those who know Hubbard through his various religious activities. However, it serves the story well as we move inexorably towards a surprise finish in which we find out just where Lowry’s hat is and what happened to those missing hours.

“…if you find your hat you’ll find your four hours and if you find your four hours, then you will die!”

In his author’s note, Hubbard admonishes that the story, despite its fantasy trappings, really could happen and I’m not going to say much else here except to confirm that this is true, that the various fantasy elements are ultimately given some sort of rational explanation – and that the final surprise is a good one. This is a highly enjoyable novella (my edition, twinned with ‘Typewriter in the Sky’ and pictured above) that runs to a little over 130 pages and I read it in a pair of sittings – if you want a suspense story with a strong dash of something a bit different, this one may well be for you

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Academic Mystery’ category:


***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Amnesia, L. Ron Hubbard. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to FEAR (1940) by L. Ron Hubbard

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I must admit, Sergio, that I’d not heard of this novella before. Ordinarily, like you, I wouldn’t have thought I’d read Hubbard’s work. But that amnesia plot point is intriguing isn’t it? And it’s good to know that the story retains some solid credibility. Thanks as ever for an interesting and thoughtful review.

  2. neer says:

    I agree with Margot, Sergio. I have never felt like reading Hubbard but this novel seems pretty intriguing. Thanks for the review.

  3. TracyK says:

    I am surprised to hear that L. Ron Hubbard wrote a vintage mystery. And even more surprised that it does sound interesting.

    • He wrote tons and tons of pulp fiction under various guises – mostly adventure stories it seems of one type of another – this one seems to be held in high regard across the board though.

  4. Colin says:

    Yet another here who would never have thought of this author as a mystery writer. I’ve always thought of him and his philosophy as fairly toxic and have avoided but, as others have said, this sounds rather interesting, especially the amnesia angle. The Leiber reference you made also got my attention. I’ve never read that book but Night of the Eagle is a tremendous film.

    • Conjure Wife is just a wonderful book and you really should get a copy if you can – almost as good is Our Lady of Darkness, which Leiber wrote 30 years later and which takes a similar approach to the idea but off campus and is a great San Francisco novel in its own right. Night of the Eagle is pretty faithful right until the eponymous big bird makes an appearance in fact. The Inner Sanctum adaptation starring Lon Chaney Jr, Weird Woman, isn’t bad either actually. I haven’t seen the more recent adaptation, Witch’s Brew (1980), starring Richard Benjamin and Teri Garr. Apparently had a somewhat troubled production history …

      • Colin says:

        I forgot about the Chaney film – in fact I forgot I have that (mostly unwatched) DVD set resting on the shelves!

        • The first two are probably the best ones actually but it’s a nice little set – oh, the days when you could get those as pressed discs! Of course, one of the pleasures of Night of the Eagle (aka Burn Witch Burn) is that like the best of the Merton park Edgar Wallace films it is populated by terrific actors and always looks great and the DVD is excellent value – I tells ya, a well-shot British mystery in black and white presented in 1.66:1 is my idea of heaven right now! Fear would have made a great film in that cycle either from Merton Park or, even better, Independent Artists (Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn)

        • Todd Mason says:

          Don’t much care for WEIRD WOMAN, despite the cast (Lon Chaney definitely miscast).

          • I certainly prefer the British version – one day I want to get hold of the original script by Matheson and Beaumont, entitled Torment, before George Baxt re-wrote it for an English setting.

    • Todd Mason says:

      The novel is vastly better than the good film. And, Sergio, have you read Leiber’s YOU’RE ALL ALONE yet?

  5. Add me to the list – didn’t think to see LRonH here, and wouldn’t have thought of reading him. You’ve widened our horizons Sergio.

  6. I’ve read a few of Hubbard’s works, both science fiction and adventure novels, including FEAR. Hubbard was a good writer, but not great.

  7. Richard says:

    Having read some, I prefer his science fiction to his adventure/crime work.

  8. A couple of years ago I came across a bunch of reprints of L. Ron Hubbard’s sf books with distinctive bright red covers but I never bought any of them, which is one of the reasons I haven’t read anything by Hubbard. I didn’t know he’d written a tale of suspense and horror either but I think that’s fairly common among sf writers, to dabble in related genres. This has a strong whiff of sf about it. Thanks for the review, Sergio.

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, you know I have a thing for academic mysteries. After reviewing Hubbard’s Trail of the Red Diamonds last year I didn’t think I’d be reading another by him. But you’ve tempted me with this one. May have to go on a hunt….

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    Hmmm—my link up didn’t work right. Oh well….

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book.
    The end is truly shocking wnen one learns where the hat was and what happened during the missing hours.
    Though the plot idea is good, I feel that there is a lot of padding with too many pages describing the various surreal events which often read lika an acid trip. The story could have been shortened considerably..

    • Hi Santosh – well, I agree really and you can tell that it was a magazine piece and that the way it was written allowed for the ‘out of world’ interludes to be shortened or lengthened according to publishing requirements. I do think though they are well done throughout and are, in their own way, genuinely frightening – what I like about it is that it’s a case of having your cake and eating it, so those that like horror and fantasy (not me usually) and those who mainly like crime and suspense (I’ll put my hand up to that) are both catered for. Thanks again for the great feedback.

      • neer says:

        Hi Sergio – Having read this now, I agree with Santosh about the ‘padding’ thing. The beginning was very good but by the end the nightmarish visions became a drag. 🙂

        • Thanks Neeru – I do think the novella basically hangs together very well and that the solipsistic / nightmarish element is well done – but yes, in terms of plot, those elements doesn’t add a lot in the end, certainly.

  12. Pingback: April 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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