A Touch of the Trollenberg Terror

I was crossing the headlands above Tynemouth in north-east England some 
years ago, following a narrow path towards the ruins of a priory when a 
sea fog rolled in and the entire area was blanketed with a dank curtain 
so thick it was difficult to see more than a yard or two in any 
direction. It was the sort of clammy, clinging fog in which the much 
derided crawling eye was occasionally glimpsed in The Trollenberg Terror.

I hadn't read the work at the time, but Algernon Blackwood perfectly 
described those headlands when during In The Strange Adventures of a 
Private Secretary in New York he talked of just such a fog sweeping in 
"like a pall of the dead from the sea".

For there's something really sinister about this vaporous meteorological 
phenomenon.

Hitherto familiar surroundings change as if shifted to another dimension 
where distances are deceptive, a bubble of visibility surrounding and 
advancing with us as we walk but never revealing what lies ahead or 
behind us. Sounds are curiously muffled and distorted. It is as if any 
minute we'll fall out of the fog into an alternative universe.

Because, for readers and writers alike, the rising of dense fog is 
usually shorthand that something nasty we would just as soon not meet is 
lurking in our vicinity, having left the wood shed. A half-seen menace 
is much more frightening to a protagonist groping blindly through a 
fog's sinister embrace. If it should lift its muffling swirls for a 
minute or two do we not expect murderous mummies to lurch up the Wapping 
Stairs intent on wreaking mayhem on innocent passersby, sinister shapes 
melting away into oblivion to a chorus of desperate screams for help, 
dark figures disappearing down dank alleyways, intent on committing vile 
deeds hidden under a ghostly shroud of drifting vapour?

Or possibly such thoughts spring from a long-time liking for Hammer 
films and an overactive imagination?

But there again fog provides such perfect cover for criminal activity, a 
point not lost on Conan Doyle, who utilises them in scene-setting for a 
number of Sherlock Holmes stories. Indeed, the first paragraph of The 
Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans reveals a dense yellow fog has 
settled over London in
the third week of November, 1895, and Holmes observes to Watson how 
easily the foggy conditions would allow a murderer or thief to roam the 
streets unseen, until he pounces upon his unfortunate victim.

However, it is my contention Dickens was the master at using fog to 
great literary effect. The famous description of fog hanging over London 
at the beginning of Bleak House can hardly be surpassed for atmospheric 
foreboding and foreshadowing. And then there's A Christmas Carol's 
depiction of Scrooge's office on Christmas Eve, with brownish fog 
pouring in through the
keyhole from a visitation lying so densely outside that houses on the 
opposite side of the narrow court look like phantoms -- a little 
Dickensian joke considering the nature of more than one of the major 
characters in the work.

However, the fogs mentioned by Dickens and Doyle were not the 
gentlemanly white fog I met on the Tynemouth headlands but rather 
dangerous dark fogs similar to those occasionally experienced during my 
childhood in Newcastle, not far up river from Tynemouth. Such smog, a 
deadly combination of fog and smoke, could and did kill the elderly or 
those in poor health. In the right, or perhaps I should say wrong, 
circumstances smog formed as a choking peasouper fueled by numerous 
factory chimneys pluming hidden skies with uncontrolled acid emissions 
and the persistent pall of sooty, sulphur dioxide laden smoke from 
domestic fireplaces at a time when everyone heated by coal. It was the 
sort of air pollution that attacked stone and lungs alike. Indeed, we 
had to redecorate our front door every year or so because the paint 
blistered and it certainly wasn't due to persistent strong sunlight.

Wisps of this yellowish-brown fog sometimes managed to make their way 
indoors, presenting a strange sight in the hallway. Sax Rohmer used 
curious effect to great effect in introducing the evil machinations to 
be executed by The Hand of Fu Manchu. As the book opens, Nayland Smith's 
friend Dr Petrie is in a suite on a semi-deserted floor in the New 
Louvre Hotel in London. He hears a strange dragging or tapping sound and 
looks out into a long corridor choked and yellowed by intrusions of the 
city's characteristic November fog. Though he hears nothing further, he 
becomes aware of the silence and how the building
is walled in by encircling yellow mist. Needless to say, sinister doings 
are afoot and the peasouper conceals all manner of deviltry.

Following the introduction of the Clean Air Acts in the 1950s and the 
introduction of smokeless fuels as well as air quality control measures 
such peasoupers became pretty much a thing of the past. However, their 
nasty visitations and attendant evils linger on in all manner of 
fiction, although the crawling eye at least has not reappeared so we 
should be grateful for that at least!

Visit Mary Reed's website http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/As it happens, Eight for Eternity, the current entry in our Lord  Chamberlain historical mystery series, opens on a foggy morning when men  are being executed. Two survive being hung twice -- an actual incident  -- thus setting in motion a story taking place during the Nika Riots in  Constantinople in 532. To quote the book blurb: Against a murderous backdrop lit by raging fires, John, Chamberlain  to Emperor Justinian, must find those seeking to use the Nika Riots to  dethrone the emperor. But are the ringleaders still in the city -- or  even alive? Porphyrius, the most famous charioteer of his time, may know  more than he tells about the mysterious disappearance of two men under  imperial guard. What roles are a pair of brothers with a distant claim  on the throne playing? Does a headstrong young girl hold the key to the  mystery? With the fate of the empire at stake, will General Belisarius  and his armed troops side with the rioters or remain loyal to Justinian?  To some the riots portend the end of the empire, to others the end of  the world itself. John must untangle a web of intrigue in a city where  death holds court at every corner before the escalating violence in the  streets removes all hope of finding those he seeks. Read the review: http://www.amazon.com/Eight-Eternity-Chamberlain-Mystery-Mysteries/dp/1590587022

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