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Arts & Culture

Debut novel unravels a mysterious murder, human fear... and the devil

An author photo of Luke Dumas is shown alongside the book cover for "A History of Fear."
Chelsea Valentine / Simon & Schuster
An author photo of Luke Dumas is shown alongside the book cover for "A History of Fear."

"A History of Fear" is an unsettling new novel that challenges what's real — including the devil.

Writer Luke Dumas, who grew up in San Diego, brings us the story of Grayson Hale, an Edinburgh student who is convicted for murder. It's told through a riveting series of interviews, evidence, lore and the murderer's first-person confession, which takes the form of a manuscript.

The book begins with an editor's note from a fictional editor, a journalist following the murder. It seems startlingly real, drawing the reader in on what feels like the reliable fringes of the story. Then, the book launches into a reprint of Hale's manuscript interspersed with notes, transcripts and other ephemera relevant to the case.


"What is this strange memoir? you might ask," posits Daniella Barclay, the fictional editor.

"I wanted to use this format of a book-within-a-book, sort of inspired by a great work of classic Scottish fiction called 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,'" Dumas said. "I really wanted it to feel like true crime at the beginning and then for this editor to sort of have found this manuscript — Grayson's manuscript."

The manuscript is discovered in his prison cell after Grayson Hale is found hanged, and the editor then presents it to the readers as a work of journalism.

"But there's a lot that's not clear. And Grayson is an extremely unreliable narrator," Dumas said.

Hale traveled to Edinburgh as a student, leaving behind a cult-like religious upbringing by his minister father — and the grief of his father's recent death. As a child, Hale developed an obsessive, intense phobia of the devil.

"Satanophobia is not a clinical term. You won't find it in any psychology handbooks. No encyclopedia of mental ailments contains it. It is a term known primarily to those who bear the affliction. A word we use to classify and validate a pattern of fear that others, perhaps rightly, would call insanity."
— from Grayson Hale's manuscript in "A History of Fear."

Upon arriving in Scotland, Hale meets a mysterious stranger who offers him a job, which Hale accepts, despite his clear and palpable unease.

As the book unfolds, Dumas fills us in on Hale's troubled childhood and his quest to understand his own father's complicated past and history with the same stranger he met on the chilly backroads of Edinburgh.

Dumas' own experience with the city and its literature as a graduate student shaped the novel's setting.

Author Luke Dumas is shown in Scotland in a 2012 photo. His time studying in Edinburgh informed the setting of his debut novel, "A History of Fear."
Courtesy of Luke Dumas
Author Luke Dumas is shown in Scotland in a 2013 photo. His time studying in Edinburgh informed the setting of his debut novel, "A History of Fear."

"It's hard not to be inspired by Edinburgh in particular. I mean, these incredible Gothic spires and cobblestone streets, and these really creepy, shadowy alleyways all over the place. And while I was there, I was taking these incredible Scottish literature classes and learning more about Scottish demonic fiction, which I had never heard about. It is a literary tradition that goes back centuries," Dumas said.

The devil, he said, often appears as a principal character, and is a trickster who harnesses people's fears and traumas for the devil's own evil means.

"It was very different than what we think of as demonic fiction here — maybe we think of exorcism or possession," Dumas said. "And in Scotland, it's a little bit more of an internalized view of evil."

Dumas' prose is vivid, with lush, poetic descriptions that still maintain a sharp, frenetic edge and mystery. And despite drawing on centuries of lore and tradition, modern absurdity and humor shines in the book — both in the inner workings of Hale's mind and the freshness of the dialogue.

"A History of Fear" came out Tuesday Dec. 6. Dumas celebrated the launch at Mysterious Galaxy Books that same day.