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