Friday, January 27, 2012

Book review: The Fog by James Herbert

Published: 1975

Synopsis: The peaceful life of a village in Wiltshire is suddenly shattered by a disaster which strikes witout reason or explanation, leaving behind it a train of misery and horror. A yawning, bottomless crack spreads through the earth, out of which creeps a fog that resembles no other. Whatever it is, it must be controlled; for whereever it goes it leaves behind a trail of disaster as hideous as the tragedy that marked its entry into the world. The fog, quite simply, drives people insane.

My Thoughts: A couple of weeks ago, armed with a copy of Stephen King's Danse Macabre, Tom and I made our way through the maze that is the Brisbane Bookfest looking for some classic, quality horror to add to our collection. This classic James Herbert book was on Stephen's huge index of must-reads, and we certainly weren't going to question the King's recommendation or turn away from the $2 price tag.

The Fog isn't quite what I thought it was going to be. The book starts off with an earthquake that not only decimates half a small town, but releases the deadly fog that will become, in a way, the antagonist in the story. The next few chapters montage a collection of different people's interaction with the fog and their subsequent reaction to it. Though the fog will cause insanity in anyone who comes into contact with it, the way that insanity manifests is almost never the same. Common seems to be a desire to harm yourself and others, but it seems that depending on your personal morals and personality, the perverseness and method you choose alters greatly. So when a priest goes mad he exposes his penis to his congregation, while a scorned poacher draws and quarters the man who'd had him arrested and the man's family. As the fog moves across England, these interactions are scattered through the main story, and I have to say these were easily my favourite bits. These vignettes held some of the most poignant interactions and emotions in the entire book, and to see these people progress from their daily life to spiralling into insanity was, in some cases, absolutely heartbreaking. Herbert certainly has a talent for creating, within a paragraph or two, an entire life for someone, and then decimating them in equal space. They rarely live on in the pages after their insanity sets in, but their role in the story is a heavy one, without them the main story wouldn't have the force it needs to impact the reader.

John Holman is the central character of the book and the first victim of the fog. Thanks to a blood transfusion for injuries he sustained in the earthquake, he not only recovered from the fog's insanity but became immune to it. Because of this he finds himself the most important man in England, and is soon working alongside the government to try and work out where it originated, what it is, and how they can stop it. Not only is the state of the country, or even the world at stake, but John's girlfriend Casey soon falls victim to the fog and it's up to him to try and fix things. While the smaller character vignettes are more traditionally horror (some of the scenes are pretty perverse and graphically violent) the main story featuring John soon falls into a more thriller/action story. It's a war story, but instead of being pitted against the Russians, or Middle Eastern forces, or the Chinese, their enemy is a yellowish dense fog that's drifting across the English countryside. So at the same time as being fairly conventional, it's completely unconventional, but the fresh and unique view usually dominates any expected reactions/actions/plot points.

If it wasn't for the fog victim's small stories I possibly would have found myself bored with this book. The writing was, for the most part, really tight and interesting, and the characters, dialogue and situations were well crafted, but I don't often enjoy sitting down and reading an action novel. Those small chapters of horrific content, and diverse characters were enough to pique my interest, but if you aren't a fan of the more action driven novel, then perhaps this won't be the book for you. The only other detractor in the story, for me, was the handling of homosexual characters. There were two, a female and a male, and both were featured within the small character vignettes, and both stories made me feel a little uncomfortable. Both tales focus on how unnatural or deviant their sexual interests are, the man (a teacher) is painted as some deviant sexual predator thanks to the old "gay men shouldn't be around children because liking dudes is totally the same as liking children" bullshit, and the lesbian, though her love story is touching, is driven to suicide because her girlfriend decides to "become normal" and turns her back on her shameful past. Is James Herbert homophobic? No, I doubt it. But the fact of the matter is, the only two gay characters in the book are painted as awkward, deviant, wrong and shameful, and whether that's because of the time that the book was written or because of the author's personal beliefs, it made me feel icky. But perhaps that's just me reading too much into a situation, or maybe I'm just overly sensitive about those issues. It wasn't enough for me to avoid recommending the book, but it was enough that I felt like I had to mention it.

There are a lot of things great about this novel, the atmosphere, the concept, the small character pieces, the relationship between John and his girlfriend, but there are also some negatives. This was James Herbert's second novel, and I think that shows, but it is also clear why this novel became such a classic and is admired by so many. So unless the addition of political/military action is enough to turn you away, I think this is a book that all horror literature enthusiasts should read and would enjoy.

3.5/5 miles of sickly yellow fog.


  1. Glad to see I'm not the only one trying to find/read all the recommendations in Dance Macabre...

    I'm not a massive Herbet fan though, to be honest.

    1. We also managed to find a copy of Ramsey Campbell's 'The Doll Who Ate his Mother.' Review to come...

    2. I'll have to check out some of his other books before I can make a real decision about him, but for the most part I quite enjoyed this one. It was a little to war-room-y at times though, and I've heard his books often go in that direction.

  2. Oh excellent - I'm a big Campbell fan! Although I think his short stories are generally stringer than his novels...

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