Lost in the Fog of a Story

February 9, 2017

It’s been foggy as all get out this week. I don’t mean one of dark, pea-soup fogs that blacken city centers for days, but a daily, thick, white, winter mist that layers everything outdoors in microscopic droplets and obscures any object more than 30 feet away. Fogs that makes the world seem even colder than it is. We’re talking weather an English Teacher can use to lecture about creating “atmosphere.”

Well, fog works in stories, doesn’t it? The very nature of the phenomena creates confusion, where good things and bad are hidden, and individuals are isolated. Writers have been using fog as set-dressing, plot-device, and symbols for longer than I care to think about. Since we’re stuck inside until the sun breaks through, why not take a look one or two stories that turned these earth-bound clouds into art?
Fog and England have been associated for so long, it’s practically become a cliche. Yet, if you are talking about bright, white, fog, forget about the stories of London. The soot and sulfur-filled clouds that permeate Bleak House and every Ripper tale ever written are peculiar to the city. Instead, look toward the southern coast for one of the greatest Gothic stories ever penned: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here, fog is used as a plot device to heighten suspense and terror during the story’s climax. Holmes and Watson are running through the Great Grimpen Mire (what a name!) to catch the villain and foil his plot. The thick fog slows down our rescuers and blinds them to the approach of the terrible Hound until the last second. But the fog is even-handed in its justice.Just as it keeps our heroes from seeing where danger is, it hides the escape route from the criminal of this piece. Unable to find his safety markers in the fog, our bad guy gets lost in the quagmire of a peat bog and comes (we assume) to a wet, miserable end. However, the fog and bog add a note of mystery. Because the criminal’s body is never found, Conan Doyle left open the possibility open for him to survive and return from the fog to threaten Holmes in a sequel!
My own Great, Grey Grimpen Mire
As isolating and dangerous as the fog can be, there are those that welcome it.  To Edmund Tyrone, and his mother, Mary, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, fog creates an illusion of isolation. It also symbolizes Edmund’s active alcoholism and Mary’s addiction to morphine. As the drugs isolate them from reality, Edmund describes how fog transforms their world into a place where “Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue, and life can hide from itself.” As for Mary, she admits,”I really love fog. It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you anymore. It’s the foghorn I hate. It won’t let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back.” Notice that neither character believes the fog makes them happier or better people; these tortured souls aren’t seeking happiness, but distance. The fog isolates them from their underlying feelings and their problems. Of course, like other wanderers in the mist, these two can’t find their way out of this half-life because they can’t tell how lost they are.  
It isn’t as gloomy as O’Neill’s Monte Cristo
Cottage, but it sure isn’t cheery either!

If you think of this play as autobiography, it’s amazing to realize these are the two family members who found their way out of the mist. O’Neill (as Edmund) eventually chose life and his work. His mother, by realizing her disease had a  spiritual as well as physical component, found recovery through a religious retreat. Ultimately, the fog’s illusion of comfort wasn’t enough for the real people.

That’s what fog ultimately means for people, in fiction and real life: confusion and the illusion of isolation from reality.  In the end, we have to deal with whatever comes along, even if it’s illness or a big, scary dog.  No matter what the mist obscures, we aren’t that far apart from each other. That’s something we’ll all see when the sun comes out again.

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