“The Fog”

The Fog

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

James Herbert’s second novel, a science-disaster/horror hybrid published in 1975 with no relation to the 1980 John Carpenter film. I read a 1983 New English Library paperback with a God-awful cover.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

An earthquake releases a madness-causing fog across England.

I went in knowing Herbert’s reputation for graphic violence/sex. As someone who enjoys my share of schlock (no sarcasm, no irony: I love The Human Centipede II), I was ready for debauchery. The Fog‘s set-up is brutally fun (vignettes of madness spread out along the overarching narrative), the book is reasonably-sized (284 pages), so this should have been no-brainer fun.

But Herbert takes himself very seriously with pedantic and arduous prose. And the main thread of the story is woefully boring with flat characters.

So this is an interesting opportunity: Instead of a post of admiration, I’m going to try to pinpoint what isn’t working here.


 

[1] There’s no spark to Herbert’s writing; no style. Just “A and B and C” over and over:

At thirty-two, Holman was still young enough to be angered by the seeming lack of resolutions shown by his superiors when he himself had taken great risks to ferret out the proof they had asked him to provide.

(p.11)

It’s a real case of three sentences for every one needed and it goes on through the entire book.

[2] Compliment – I quite like this:

It all seemed to have happened in slow motion. And yet it had all happened so fast.

(p.17)

[3] And back to limp, confusing writing:

This was on their own doorstep, the British people could relate to it, not viewing it distantly through the news media and the press, thereby finding true sympathy hard to arouse.

(p.20)

[4] Reference:

A little Jock from Glasgow.

(p.49)

noun – (Scottish and Irish English) – a nickname for John.

An innocent lad; country boy.

(British Informal) – a Scottish soldier or a solider in a Scottish regiment.

(usually offensive) – a term used to refer to or address a Scot.

[5]

“Well, John,” he said, staring at Holman with eyes that penetrated yet seemed to see nothing.

(p.51)

[6] Reference:

The rumoured “bromide in the tea” didn’t seem to do much good.

(p.57)

From Brian Clegg’s podcast about potassium bromide on chemistryworld.com:

According to legend, the British Army added potassium bromide to their soldiers’ tea to overcome their frustrated sexual urges (…) It seems likely that the three contributory factors to the bromide myth were the early suggestions of the link of epilepsy to overactive libidos, as an explanation for the effects of exhaustion and anxiety in the stresses of war and, perhaps, psychologically as a boost for the troops, by suggesting that they were such rampant males that they need a little calming.

[7]

But to kill himself required more courage than he would ever possess, so he had survived the mental torture and the physical wound, not because he was courageous, defiant to adversity, but because he was afraid to die.

(p.61)

[8] Vocabulary:

Stamping on the limp man with plimsoled feet.

(p.65)

plimsoll

noun – (British) – a light rubber-soled canvas shoe, worn especially for sports.

[9] (Odd complaint, but I know a book isn’t doing its job when this sort of thing stands out.) There are a lot of characters with “H” names. In our cast, we have: Holman (p.10); Hurdle (p.20); Hodges (p.40); Hayward (p.55); Herbert and Harry (p.81); Halstead (p.140).

Discussions between Holman and Hodges; Holman and Hayward; or Herbert and Harry get pretty confusing.

[10]

Tears glistened in Lena Brown’s eyes, not tears of self-pity or sorrow, but tears of hate.

“I wish you’d die,” she said aloud, her breath causing the window-pane to mist up. “I wish you’d fucking die.”

(p.84)

I like it, but even this could have used tightening. Take out the word “aloud”; we don’t need it. Take out “up”. Make that first sentence active:

Tears of hate glistened in Lena Brown’s eyes.

“I wish you’d die,” she said, her breath misting the window-pane. “I wish you’d fucking die.”

Herbert’s final product looks like first drafting, when you’re getting everything out – every backstory, every explanation, every movement. The thing is, on later edits, you figure out what’s essential and get rid of the rest. Herbert fails to take the second step.

[11] One of two effective comedic bits in the book (see also note [27]):

A trader came out of his stop to see what the disturbance was about and as Edward passed him, he whirled and dealt the inquisitive shopkeeper a swift kick to his seat.

The man turned, using both hands to rub his smarting bottom, and stared after the retreating assistant bank manager, not quite sure of what had happened. Edward made his way along the street kicking bottoms at random, his victims too astonished to do anything but stare after his tall, foot-thrashing figure.

(p.94)

One of Edward’s victims reports the ass-kicking to a policeman who approaches Edward:

“I’m sorry about this, sir. It often happens with these people. They see a uniform and immediately use it to make themselves feel important. He’s harmless enough.”

“I understand, officer,” said Edward, with concern. “It’s quite all right. Really.”

“They want to be noticed, that’s all.” The policeman smiled. “It’s certainly original, though, saying you kicked his bottom all the way down the street.”

Edward smiled back. “Yes, it certainly is.” Both men shook their heads in wonder.

“Well, good day to you, sir,” the policeman half-saluted. “He won’t bother you again.”

“Thank you, officer. Good day.”

As the policeman turned and walked towards his car Edward took two brisk steps after him, swung his foot back, and gave him a hefty kick in the seat of his pants.

(p.97)

Herbert is having some fun; he’s showing he’s capable of winking. I wish he’d worked more of this in.

[12] The narrative doesn’t trust us to retain anything. The same information is repeated, sometimes within the same paragraph, sometimes pages apart. If the redundancies were trimmed, The Fog could have been a tight two-hundred pages.

Twice she had to pull over to the side of the road and stop, unable to stem the flood of tears that had abruptly burst forth. Once she had to stop as fog drifted into her path, and she had wept as she waited for it to pass.

(p.108 – 109)

Herbert backtracks to tell us how the character got to this point, then ends the flashback with:

She drove through the night to Bournemouth, stopping occasionally when she could no longer stem her tears, her only consolation now in what she was going to do. And once, she was forced to stop because of heavy fog.

(p.116 – 117)

[13]

Her eyes were open as the last bubbles of air escaped from her lips. The terror had gone. There was no pain. There was no recollection of her life, no memories to taint her in her dying. Just a misty blankness. No thoughts of God. No questions why. Just a descending white veil. Not a veil of peace, nor one of horror. Not even one of emptiness. Nothingness. Free of emotion and free of coldness. She was dead.

(p.119 – 120)

This is pretty good. Herbert is so close to something; if he could only drop the proper tone and get in there, I would be haunted by this passage.

[14] The main character, Holman, is thirty-two. We are not told the age of his girlfriend, Casey. I assume twenties. But she is constantly referred to as a “girl” by the narrative and in dialogue. Not woman, not even young woman, except for once:

She screamed and fought like the mad woman she was.

(p.125)

This is when Casey is under the effects of the fog. After she’s recovered, she is a “girl” again. We’ve talked about my dislike for adult females being called girls (see Charles Beaumont’s “A Long Way From Capri“, note [176]). It seems like “women” is considered an insult by these authors, or at least a sign that a female is not sexually desirable.

[15] Reference:

“I am sure Mrs. Halstead knows of the Rhesus factor (…) where a mother produces a mental defect because of antigenic incompatibility between the mother and foetus.”

(p.149)

The Rh blood group system is one of thirty-five current human blood group systems. Rh derives from rhesus and the terms rhesus blood group system, rhesus factor, rhesus positive and rhesus negative are also used.

An individual either has, or does not have, the “Rh factor” on the surface of their red blood cells. Immunization against Rh can generally only occur through blood transfusion or placental exposure during pregnancy in women.

The hemolytic condition occurs when there is an incompatibility between the blood types of the mother and the fetus. If a mother does not receive an injection and at birth, she may develop antibodies toward the fetus.

There are symptoms and signs associated with the fetus/newborn, but I can’t find anything about “mental defects” occurring in the mother.

[16] Herbert leans toward Lovecraftian dialogue. That is not a compliment:

“He destroyed his work and killed a fellow scientist in the process. Then he became – a nothing. His brain hardly functioned, he neither saw nor heard anything. He died soon after by his own hand!”

(p.154)

And please, try to imagine saying the following over a radio while fearing for your life:

“There – there is dust spewing from the top of the concrete – no, from behind it. Is it dust?” There was a long pause. “Or is it just the disturbed fog? No, the fog is clearer over here, it must be dust. I will look closer. It seems to be coming out rapidly, like steam. I am near to it now, I can see behind the con-” again his voice broke off. “There is a gap!” Holman started at the sudden exclamation. “There is a gap in the roof! The fog – it is escaping from it! But this is impossible. It must be the force of the blast. The air inside the tunnel must be forcing the fog out. It must be that, surely the fog couldn’t – God! There is a light! The hole is beginning to glow. The light is coming out. It is the light we saw in the tunnel, the yellow light. No, no, the mycoplasma is escaping. It is emerging with the fog! I must get away from here! I must get away.”

(p.263)

[17] Reference:

“There are a few principal methods of dealing with fog. The method we’ve been using today, all day, is sprinkling calcium chloride from low flying aircraft, a practice used in San Francisco regularly to clear their fogs.”

(p.156)

Calcium chloride could be used to clear fog (it draws moisture out of the air), but I can’t find evidence for it being spread over San Francisco to clear fog.

[18]

He became aware of their presence more by sensing it than hearing or seeing them. They appeared as three dark shapes in the fog, standing about five feet apart, just beyond reasonably clear visual range, unmoving, silent. He looked from one hazy form to another, their stillness more frightening than if they had been moving, for mobility would have at least given them some form, something he could identify.

(p.164 – 165)

[19] This is a good example of Herbert’s weaknesses; most of this is unnecessary:

As they landed, the small-time crook who had been amazed at the chance of having the whole town of Winchester to himself to plunder undisturbed with his two cronies, and was now insane because of this ill-seized opportunity, ignored the descending machine and happily continued filling in the pit he had dragged the unconscious man towards. The hole had been left by workmen who had just begun to dig a grave that was to house the remains of an important church dignitary whose last wishes were to be buried in the shadow of his beloved cathedral. The work had been interrupted by the sudden evacuation order and the burial that was to have taken place later on in the day was now replaced by a far less dignified ceremony.

(p.168)

My God, we don’t need to know why the hole was there.

[20] Reference:

His dislike for the little Cockney and his Mancunian companion [was] evident in his tone.

(p.180)

Mancunian is the associated adjective and demonym (identifier of residents or natives) of Manchester, England.

[21] Reference:

They (…) sometimes would follow him out to the gents if they were in the Naafi or a club.

(p.185)

The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is an organization created by the British government in 1921 to run recreational establishments needed by the British Armed Forces, and to sell goods to servicemen and their families.

[22]

By sheer brute strength and blind defiance of the laws of gravity he almost reached the top of the incline.

His second mistake was to look back.

(p.187)

[23] Holman gave his girlfriend Casey her nickname (p.31). Her real name is Charlotte, which no one, even her father (who hates Holman), calls her now. She finally asks why “Casey” and Holman tells her:

“When I saw you (…), you had the same sad little eyes [as my childhood pet dog, Casey] (…) and they made me fall in love with you… and I knew I’d found something that would be precious again to me… and that’s why I called you Casey.”

(p.192 – 193)

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

[24] There’s no life to this; no passion. This feels like the work of someone who hates writing.

But he’d made it. The joy of once again emerging into the daylight, grey though it was, was immense and made him feel quite light headed. The fog seemed slightly less dense, but he wasn’t sure if it wasn’t because he’d come from the blackness of the tunnels and the contrast between total darkness and murky grey was deceiving his eyes.

(p.208 – 209)

[25]

He was rigid from the shock of it for even though he had been expecting its emergence from the fog, the suddenness of its appearance had an almost paralyzing effect on his limbs.

(p.210)

You could say this in so few words:

He went rigid from the shock.

or

The suddenness of its appearance froze him.

The rest of is redundant and boringly mild. This is action, you must use active, exciting descriptions!

But now I’m becoming redundant in my complaints.

[26] This is a great, effective image.

And, strangest of all, they saw people behaving normally: queing at bus stops, walking along briskly as though on their way to work, swinging umbrellas or carrying briefcases, entering the buildings that were open, waiting patiently outside others whose doors had not yet been unlocked, chatting to one another as though it were an ordinary working day, ignoring the chaos that was taking place around them. But that was their abnormality.

(p.223)

[27] The most effective scene of the book and one of the few times I felt Herbert was having the sort of fun he should be having with this set-up:

“Did you make sure your wife was securely tied before you left her?” asked Holman. (…)

“Oh, I didn’t leave her,” the man replied. “I couldn’t have left Louise. I love her too much to have left her there alone at the mercy of anyone who might break in (…) So, I brought her with me; she’s in the back. I stopped her saying those foul things and stopped her looking at me that way and put her in the back seat. There she is, my Louise, behind you, in the back.”

Holman quickly glanced over his shoulder. (…)

On the back seat was slumped the bound figure of a woman, recognizable as a woman only by her clothes, for the body ended in a bloody stump at the neck.

(p.243 – 244)

[28] This pedantic over-explaining… whew.

He looked up again at the light and then he realized what had happened. He had driven into a tunnel! He should have realized it instantly, but because of circumstances, everything that happened seemed abnormal.

(p.245)

[29] Reference:

He asked for explosives, the “brisant” kind, the type used for quarrying and demolition work because of its shattering power.

(p.249 – 250)

Briscance is the shattering capability of a high explosive, determined mainly by its detonation pressure.

[30]

Madmen have a special kind of cunning.

(p.268)


 

Not recommended. If you want a great story about a deadly fog, read Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” (in Skeleton Crew).

For anyone who wants to claim that Herbert was the British Stephen King in any way beyond sales, compare Holman’s walk across The Fog‘s London (p.269) with Larry Underwood’s terrifying journey through the Lincoln Tunnel in The Stand. One still haunts my mind when I’m in darkness; the other I’ll never think of again.

I could recommend The Fog to twelve- to sixteen-year-olds looking for some gross-out violence and sex scenes to read aloud and giggle over. I bet this book has been hidden in a lot of adolescent bedrooms.

Next week, let’s palate-cleanse with some great horror: Stephen King’s novella collection Full Dark, No Stars.

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