Two tales of terror fail to sustain chills

May 12, 1991|By Gregory N. Krolczyk

Britain's Ramsey Campbell has written nine novels and several short story collections, and has received numerous awards. Yet despite these accomplishments, Mr. Campbell is hardly a household name. "Midnight Sun" (Tor/Tom Doherty, 336 pages, $18.95) will do little to change that.

L. Ron Hubbard is best known as the author of "Dianetics" and founder of Scientology. But Hubbard was (although "Fear's" dust jacket implies otherwise, he died in 1986) also the producer of a large quantity of fiction. "Fear" (Bridge Publications, 188 pages, $16.95) is a very short, bare-bones novel that was written in 1940 and published in Unknown magazine. Like "Midnight Sun," "Fear" will do little to raise its author's popularity, but for much different reasons.

"Midnight Sun" follows Ben Sterling, a children's book writer; Ellen, his wife and illustrator; and their two children, as they move to the town of Stargrave to live in the house of Ben's early childhood. As the family settles in, Ben finds himself becoming increasingly drawn to the enormous forest that was planted behind the house at the request of his great-grandfather, Edward. Edward, too, was a writer, an inditer of folklore who supposedly discovered the secret of the Midnight Sun. Ben, too, soon will discover that secret, and experience all the chilling horror that it brings.

Quite the opposite of his British counterpart Clive Barker, Mr. Campbell is a master of quiet horror. Unfortunately, "Midnight Sun" is too quiet. The novel moves at a dreadfully slow pace, is rarely compelling or even engaging, and is almost devoid of action. This is a reflection not on Mr. Campbell's writing abilities, but instead on the tale he chose to write. Generally, a horror novelist will take normal people and thrust them into abnormal circumstances, and Mr. Campbell has done just that. But the circumstances he created limited the kind of tale he could tell. Indeed, given these parameters, I doubt few could have told this story any better. But I also doubt many would have bothered trying.

In "Fear," Hubbard plunges a normal character into some seriously abnormal circumstances, but here it's the messenger that's the problem and not the message. The central character is an ethnologist named James Lowry, who, upon being fired from his professorial post at the local college, stops by a friend's house for a sympathetic ear. But the commiseration is bittersweet and James leaves just as the clock strikes 3:15. The next thing he knows, his watch says 7:15 and he somehow has lost his hat. What follows for James Lowry is a frantic, Daliesque quest to find his hat and those missing four hours.

In the author's note that precedes "Fear," Hubbard writes: "There is one thing which I wish the reader could keep in mind throughout, and that is: this story is wholly logical, for all that will appear to the contrary." There's more, but as Shakespeare wrote: ". . . 'tis enough, 'twill serve," because with those few words of bravado, Hubbard managed to ruin the book.

To say the story contains a few elements that appear to defy being "wholly logical" would be a massive understatement. But instead of enjoying what could have been an exciting journey through these surreal elements, I felt compelled to make sense out of them. Of course I couldn't, and when the solution was revealed, well . . . I guess it "could" happen to "any man" (as also stated in the author's note), but so, too, could we all be struck dead by meteorites.

I am neither privy to why Hubbard chose to include the foreshadowing in his introduction, nor why Mr. Campbell decided to write this particular story. I do know that neither worked for me, and that's more than enough.

Mr. Krolczyk is a writer living in Baltimore.

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