Sunday, January 25, 2009

Summer of Fog

It was a glorious time for horror fiction, and a glorious time for this teenage horror fan who was discovering names like Guy N. Smith (The Sucking Pit), Stephen King (Carrie) and James Herbert (The Rats), and becoming obsessed with a British publishing company called New English Library (NEL). My world was expanding rapidly. I was embracing my status as a hardcore horror fan without shame and without guilt.

That stuff was for Catholics!

It was 1975. January. In just two weeks I would be starting my high school education at a boys-only, Catholic college. I would witness the brutal treatment of students by teachers in a borstal-like environment. The perpetrators would call themselves "Father", "Brother", and "Sister". My reading material would be humbled by this brutality.

My family was holidaying briefly in Marysville, a small country town at the base of an intimidating mountain range. It was a two hour drive from Melbourne -- that is, if you stepped on the gas, and didn't pull over to let someone vomit. The town is dotted with guest houses and quaint boutique motels. It has a small shopping strip with a Milk Bar, hotel, news agency (an Australian term for a bookshop that also sells newspapers, stationery, and lottery tickets), TAB, a florist, and supermarket.

I had a well-established holiday routine. As soon as we arrived in a new town, I would head off with my brother to check out the local news agency. If there was a cinema, that would be my second stop. This trip was no exception.

As was common in those days, my dad was pissed off and impatient; I didn't want to cop the back hand of his mood (as the eldest of four kids, I usually did), so the sensible thing to do was make myself scarce. My brother and I extracted ourselves from the family as suitcases were unpacked and the girls attached themselves to mum like warts . We headed down the tree-lined, main street and were glad to be free. I was twelve years old; my brother was two years younger. Most of the time, my brother and I were a tight unit.

Up entering the news agency, I scoped it out for paperbacks. My nose for pulp was acute. Ah, there they were! A large, tall shelf down the back sagging with the weight of paper. Running from floor to ceiling and as wide as the length of a bed. It was an open treasure chest.

We had to pass the magazine racks to get there. I slowed to scan the covers of Penthouse, Playboy, H & E (the nudist rag) and Swank (my favorite), but I didn't stop. I'd been clipped over the ear by numerous storekeepers in the past for loitering in the porno section. The best bet for one of such tender years was to skate by discreetly and fill one's eyes with as many fleshy treats as possible. You could always return the following day if anything caught your fancy (which was highly likely).

My brother shadowed me and parked himself beside me as I stopped in front of the paperback rack. What a world of possibilities it presented. A million worlds sandwiched between their pages. The usual names were present -- Jackie Collins, Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins, Alistair McClean, James Michener. I was determined to read a Harold Robbins one of these days. I'd already given McClean a try. I liked his breakneck style. Jackie Collins? Forget it.

'ello, 'ello, this was more like it! Stephen King's Carrie, a novel I'd gobbled up with glee, was glaring at me from the top shelf. Seeing it there was an indicator that the proprietor of the news agency was not some anti-horror nancy boy who'd traded his testicles for a wedding ring. No, this bloke was was alright in my book.

Apart from Carrie, horror was still pretty light-on here in Marysville. There were some Mills and Boone romance novels (gimme a break!), some Barbara Cartland (Jesus !), and some Frank Herbert (Dune, which I'd read, and Dune Messiah, which I hadn't read yet) . George Gilman's Edge books were big in those days. "Slaughter Road", the 22nd in the series, caught my attention immediately. I liked that title. It conjured images of a long, country road strewn with bloody, gouged corpses. And perhaps some detached eyeballs as well? That George Gilman was alright, too.

I noticed James Herbert's The Fog when I was grabbing a bunch of Carrie's and placing them in front of Barbara Cartland's rotten romances. I was always re-arranging book racks back in those days so that horror would be favored. The Fog was sandwiched between a Carrie and Irving Wallace's The Plot; I'd never read a Wallace book, but I was well aware of his popularity.

The Herbert novel was calling my name by the time I placed the last Carrie in front of A. Cecil Hampshire's Liliput Fleet (if that was about a ship of dwarves, I should have snapped it up).

"By the author of 'The Rats' " the cover declared.

I didn't need to be told that.

At the time, if I'd been asked, I would have told you that The Rats was the best novel I'd ever read. It had knocked me for a six (a cricket expression) and buried itself deep in my psyche. It was a revelation -- for its writing, and for its audaciousness.

My first edition of The Rats (see above) was looking like the pulp equivalent of an army base whore on New Year's Day. It had done the rounds of friends and foes and become the yardstick by which all future horror would be measured. The p.68 love scene between the novel's hero, Harris, and his girl Judy, had been combed so thoroughly by teenage eyes, only erotic dandruff remained.

The Fog. Great title. Loved it already. Handling the book with care, I flipped it over and read the back cover as my brother huddled up to me:

My God, this was going to be the best novel ever!

"He's carrying a severed head," I said out loud, hoping I'd be overheard, as my little brother looked up at me for moral guidance. "It's the bleeding head of his wife."

Wow!" My brother shared my enthusiasm. His face had lit up. "Are you getting it?"

"You bet!"

I paid for the book and took off up the street. My brother huffed and puffed behind me. I couldn't wait to get back so I could find myself a comfy seat and get cracking on the book right away. Knowing that there were such horrors as men carrying the severed heads of their wives in this book made me antsy with anticipation. I wasn't going to be denied the pleasure of reading all about it for one minute longer.

I spent the next two days falling in love with The Fog and savoring every bloody toss and turn of the narrative. I read and re-read the incredible scenes of carnage and carnal violence; my brother read the "good bits" over my shoulder when I would wave to indicate the coast was clear. Now and then I'd look up at my parents, certain that they knew what I was reading. I'd study the way they looked at me. I feared that the book would be taken from me as I slept, and ripped to shreds by my mother, so I wrapped it in a sweater and clutched it to my chest through the night. When I came across the chapter where Ronnie and Mavis, the two doomed lesbians, make love, I was propelled into a world that was both alien and exciting to me. This was even more fun than lesbian vampires!

I kept picturing James Herbert as I read. As the fog sent men and women insane, I'd recall the photos I'd seen of Herbert. I was in awe of the guy. He was speaking directly to me. He knew what I craved. He knew my secrets. My secret desires. My passions. He was a "horror writer", surely the best job in the world.

Herbert also knew about priests. And he imagined things that didn't entirely surprise me about them... certainly not once I started Catholic high school.

The book contains a landmark sequence in which a parish priest, Reverend Martin Hurdle, gets caught in the yellowish fog. When he arrives at the church to begin his service, the following occured:

Then the Reverend Martin Hurdle, Vicar of St. Augustine's for eighteen years, lifted his cassock, undid his trousers, took out his penis, and urinated on the congregation.

At twelve years of age, I was more than impressed; I was converted to Herbert's brand of profane horror. My anti-Catholic Catholicism was being fueled by Herbert's literary accelerants.

The atrocities continued unabated throughout the novel, but nothing equaled the horrors portrayed in Chapter 6. A bunch of schoolboys enter a frenzy of masturbation that culminates in a penis being placed between the blades of a pair of garden shears. Things don't go well for the penis's owner:

The boys watched in silence as the two blades snapped together and the scream echoed around the gymnasium.

My Marysville holiday, and the end of the Summer, was defined by The Fog. The book became my entry point to a wondrous world of horror, perversion and bloodshed. It defined a period and re-defined a state of mind.

Today, I appreciate James Herbert's masterpiece of horror even more.

Although it is not often said, Herbert is also a brilliant writer of action. The Dark, Lair, '48, Domain, The Fog and The Survivor contain large scale, inventive action sequences that are virtually unequaled for their sheer ferocity, detail, scale, and pacing.

Although Herbert's books have been released in the US, he is not terribly well known there.

I'm sure covers like this have nothing to do with that!


  1. Great Post!
    [I felt like I was right there with you!] :-)

  2. This is incredible! I, too, had my own summer of The Fog.

    My first horror novel was Herbert's The Survivor, suggested to me by a cousin. After that I found a copy of The Rats in the sale bin at my Jr. High. Once I devoured that one, I used the order form in the back pages and sent away for The Fog, based on the gruesome recap in the back pages.

    I took the novel, along with other treats, The Pack and another novel that escapes me, and read all three during a week long family trip to a cabin in the woods -- an excellent spot for reading novels of horror.