CriminOlly thinks: Horrifically effective set pieces and a chilling central concept overcome a weak plot 4/5
The year after ‘The Rats’ smashed its way onto the horror scene, James Herbert published his second book. His debut must have been a tough act to follow, but somehow he manages to up the shock factor with ‘The Fog’. I first read it as a teenager back in the 80s, but long before that I’d been gleefully relayed the details of some of the more horrific scenes by school friends with older brothers who had read it. Interestingly, there is one sequence I vividly remember having described to me that isn’t in the book at all. A fact that probably says a lot about the fevered imaginations of adolescent boys.
The premise of ‘The Fog’ is as simple and immediately attention grabbing as that of ‘The Rats’. There are no furry critters this time, just a weird fog drifting around England which sends anyone who breathes it in violently insane. Like ‘The Rats’ it has a plot that isn’t a million miles away from the disaster movies that were popular in the 70s; but again Herbert ramps the horror up to eleven and produces something which has some lastingly disturbing moments.
The violence in ‘The Fog’ is as graphic as that in ‘The Rats’ but even more shocking because for the most part it is humans delivering it. Herbert mixes utterly random acts of carnage (a bus driver ploughing his vehicle through passengers waiting at a bus stop), with more personal ones (a man decapitating his wife and carrying her severed head around). Most shocking of all is the fact that children are not immune to the fog’s effects. A memorable early scene has a group of school boys attacking their teachers and each other in a bloody, sexual frenzy. In a nod to his first book, Herbert also throws in killer pigeons and cats who turn on their owners.
Indeed, whilst these are differences from ‘The Rats’, there are more similarities. The structure of the two books is identical with a slowly evolving linear plot interspersed with horrific vignettes. These are typically centered around characters who appear simply to be killed, but like in ‘The Rats’, Herbert gives them convincing and fairly detailed back stories before bloodily executing them. Once again, the hero (in this case, Department of the Environment inspector John Holman) is an everyman character who gets wrapped up in the events by chance at the start of the book, and continues his involvement because he’s that kind of guy. Just like in ‘The Rats’, the hero ends up working with government scientists and the military to defeat the menace. In this case with the twist that his early exposure to the fog has left him immune to it.
The fog itself is a bit weird, a big block of glowing mist that slowly floats around the countryside claiming victims. Whilst the havoc it causes is chillingly gruesome, the actual fog is almost ridiculously unthreatening and it is only really the inability of the authorities to deal with it that causes problems. What problems they are though! The most horrific scenes are generally the smaller scale one, but the disaster claims literally thousands of victims in mass suicides.
Disappointingly, there is less of a political edge to ‘The Fog’. Whereas the focus on deprived areas of London in ‘The Rats’ allowed some social commentary from Herbert, the broader setting here (effectively the whole of the south of England) seems to stifle that urge in him. There is a sub-plot about the origins of the fog that could have been developed further, but it feels like something of an afterthought really.
Fortunately, any such issues are forgotten in the gripping final act, which sees Holman battling through a devastated London. It’s an effective and memorable climax to a book that is just as compelling as Herbert’s first.
Title: The Fog | Author: James Herbert | Publisher: New English Library | Pages: 267 | Publication date: 1975 | ISBN: 9780450042782 | Source: Purchased
It begins with a crack that rips the earth apart. Peaceful village life shattered. But the disaster is just the beginning. Out of the bottomless pit creeps a malevolent fog. Spreading through the air it leaves a deadly, horrifying trail, destined to devastate the lives of all those it encounters…
What else happened in 1975
1975 saw a continuation of current affairs themes from earlier years in the decade with high unemployment and multiple IRA bombings in England. The Labour party conference voted against continued membership of the EEC, and the relationship with Europe is still something the party is struggling with today, as their confused, cautious Brexit policy evidences. Meanwhile, on the other side of the House of Commons, Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Tory party. It would be another 4 years before she became Prime Minister.
1975 was a pretty unspectacular year for horror, the 3 most notable movie releases being David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. One might argue that the last 2 aren’t horror films at all.
Horror literature fared slightly better, with ‘’Salem’s Lot’ by Stephen King and ‘Audrey Rose’ by Frank De Felitta from the US and Graham Masterson’s first novel ‘The Manitou’ in the UK.
Content Warnings: suicide, rape, homophobia