Growing up, I was a huge fan of horror, the cheesier the better. James Herbert’s The Rats and sequels were an early stop on my tour of all things gruesome, and I loved it, but somehow the only other Herbert book I’ve read over the years has been Fluke. An impulse to read some traditional British horror led me to pick up The Fog, the earliest of Herbert’s standalone titles.
In a remote West Country village, the kind of friendly but stifling little place where everyone stops for a daily chat with the greengrocer and marries the boy next door, the ground abruptly trembles and ruptures into a chasm which swallows part of the main street whole. It releases a yellow-grey miasma which begins to envelop the surrounding countryside, twisting the minds of those it touches, and one of its first victims — the only one to regain his sanity after being in its clutch — is compelled to discover whether the cause has any link to his work, and whether a solution can be found before it touches upon a major settlement. Or a metropolis…
Holman, the lead character, has the potential to be interesting, being an employee for the Department of the Environment who’s sent to investigate Ministry of Defence bases his boss suspects are sited on land the MoD is holding onto without cause. Unfortunately, he’s sort of a bland 70s stereotype of an everyman, complete with ladykiller history despite lack of charm or personality. He’s also constantly referred to as Holman in the narrative and by pretty much everyone he deals with, which means I actually had to look up his first name before writing this review because I’d already forgotten it. It’s John. Well, of course it would be John.
He’s the sort of character who would fit comfortably into pulp fiction, but is a bit of a hindrance to a chiller where the reader would benefit from a sympathetic connection to the person whose psychological reactions inform our experience of the horror. So it’s probably to the best that the book frequently cuts away from his story to indulge in vignettes about the victims of the fog. Although some of them are predictable, the majority are nicely atmospheric, one of the best being a broken-hearted woman who chooses to end her life by walking into the sea, only to discover when she has a last-minute change of mind that she’s not the only one with that idea. Herbert takes his time building the characters in these segments up into authentic people, feeding us enough of their pasts to give it resonance when they meet their expected ends, though sometimes in very unexpected ways.
Although a lot of the time I felt mildly disappointed when the story would return to Holman, he does eventually end up taking us through one of the most atmospheric sequences of the book as well, where everything is blanked out by the fog and a lot of the suspense comes from heard snippets of what he knows is going on just beyond his sight, and of sudden encounters with the fog-afflicted standing only feet away. Herbert doesn’t rely exclusively on death and gruesome murders to deliver his shocks, either; sometimes the creepiest thing is someone functioning normally in a situation where normality is the last thing one ought to be expressing.
The Fog was published in the mid-70s, and in some respects it’s aged fairly well. The lack of ubiquitous technology which today would lead to much faster spreads of news and greater difficulty containing outbreaks of suppressed information wouldn’t ring quite true to today’s reader, but when it comes to fears about how far our governments are willing to go in experimentation and weaponisation, and what they will do to cover it up, it likely plays on the modern mindset quite well. Less translatable are the social attitudes — although I only encountered one truly racist passage, there is a great deal of paternalism in the way female characters are treated both by others and by the narrative, from throwaway derogatory remarks about the intelligence of the average housewife to the limp characterisation of Holman’s girlfriend. He even spends the entire novel referring to her not by her given name, but by a pet name that reminds him of his childhood dog. To be fair, she kind of reminded me of one as well, but that’s because Herbert isn’t very good at writing women, at least not here. There are also some questionable portrayals of LGBT characters. Lesbians at least fared better than gay men, where unfortunately we visit the tired trope of gay male teacher is implied to be a paedophile, although it’s possible to read it in such a way that that might not be true.
Books are a product of their time, but so are we. The Fog remains an entertaining, suspenseful, and well-written, but neither deep nor well-characterised, entry in the horror canon. Not one perhaps for the type of reader who needs to forge a deep connection to characters in order to appreciate their experiences, but still a good way for the horror fan to get their chills.