The Making of “Fear”
Illustration by Edd Cartier from the original publication of Fear
Originally published in July 1940, L. Ron Hubbard’s immortal Fear has riveted readers for 75 years and will continue to do so in the years and decades to come.
Described by science fiction grandmaster Jack Williamson as “the triumphant pioneer of psychological thrillers,” by author Robert Silverberg as “a classic masterpiece of psychological horror,” and by author and critic Algis Budrys as simply “a big goddam lighthouse…one of the biggest milestones in the field,” Fear forever changed the tone, setting, narrative energy and direction of horror fiction.
In Fear, the innocuously prosaic becomes an unremitting nightmare, introduced with a quiet sense of foreboding in the famous opening lines of the novel:
“Lurking, that lovely spring day, in the office of Dr. Chalmers, Atworthy College Medical Clinic, there might have been two small spirits of the air, pressed back into the dark shadow behind the door, avoiding as far as possible the warm sunlight which fell gently upon the rug.”
The patient being examined is ethnology professor James Lowry, who has announced publicly that he doesn’t believe in spirits, witches or demons. At least not until three o’clock in the afternoon of this otherwise normal spring day, in front of the quite ordinary house of an academic associate, when he suddenly loses his hat and four hours of his life. Abruptly, Lowry is plunged into a macabre world of night without day, of strange figures out of time, of “hats and bats and cats”—a litany Hubbard uses with mounting, spellbinding effect—and a secret evil that whispers to him from the darkness: “If you find your hat you’ll find your four hours, and if you find your four hours then you will die!”
The climax, a classically pure and powerful “moment of truth,” is abrupt and breathtaking—“a horrifying emotional punch,” as one reviewer described it.
As Stephen King put it, “If you’re not averse to a case of the cold chills—a rather bad one—and you’ve never read Fear, I urge you to do so. Don’t even wait for a dark and stormy night. This is one of the really, really good ones.”
The Writing of Fear
Hubbard began work on Fear—its working title was “Phantasmagoria”—in January 1940. How he came to author a tale that would have such profound effect on the horror genre is found in several letters to friends at that time:
Jan. 18, 1940
I have been so upset about a story for the past few days that I have not written, not wanting to even touch this mill. However I finally got the plot of it licked and am doing research upon it.
The story will be named PHANTASMAGORIA and the theme is, “What happened to Dwight Brown on the day he cannot remember?” Twenty-four hours lost from a man’s life. And if I handle it properly it will be something Dostoyevsky might have done. He strives to locate his deeds while missing everywhere but in the right place, for he fears to look there. He is surrounded, day by day, by more terror and apparitions as his solutions are gathered about him only to become hollow and half seen. He knows, deep down, that the day he recognizes his deeds of the day he cannot remember, on that day he shall die. And, having gone mad he has to choose between being mad forever and being dead. And if you don’t think that one was a tough one at which to arrive and now plot by incident…! And John Campbell [editor of Unknown] all the while drumming new suggestions at me and insisting I use them……! And five conflicting stories to be woven into one…..!!!!!!!
Jan. 28, 1940
I tried, today, to start PHANTASMAGORIA, having fully outlined it last night. But for some reason I could not think connectedly enough or establish a sufficient mood. It is a pretty dolorous story and so I suppose I had better tell it very calmly and factually, without striving to dwell on mood.
I’ve been trying to coax up a certain tone for the story. And I think a nice, delicate style is best suited. Paint everything in sweetness and light and then begin to dampen it, not with the style, but with the events themselves. In other words lead the reader in all unsuspecting and then dump the works on his head. Show very little true sympathy and do not at all try to make the facts worse than they are but rather make light of them. Oh hell! This is such a hard story! But I can see a sleepy college town with spring and elms and yawning students and a man just back from an ethnological expedition, called to take over from a professor who has become ill. A man suited to quiet solitude with a certain still idealism about him, who has come back to his home and his wife and is trying anxiously to fit into the picture which he so long ago left. If told almost dispassionately the thing ought to be good. In other words, I’ll just write it. For I can’t work up a gruesome mood. Ah, for a few days out of my adolescence! The character must take it all mildly, that’s the easiest way. How I hate to make anyone “emote”!
In writing Fear, Hubbard did something no other author had ever successfully done. Without the use of supernatural contrivance—werewolves or vampires; without resorting to extreme venues—the haunted house-on-the-hill, the cellar lab, the strange planet; and without using super-psychotic protagonists—Freddy Kruger, Norman Bates or Jack Torrance of The Shining; he took an ordinary man, in a very ordinary circumstance and descended him into a completely plausible but extraordinary hell.
What makes Fear so powerful? Because it really could happen. And that is terrifying.