An important element of the narrative and thematic landscapes across Gothic literature is the recurring appearance of the fog. The fog is prominently invoked across the multiple Gothic ‘types’, which vary from the ‘Old Gothic’, of which the novels of Horace Walpole are an example; the ‘new Gothic’, as exemplified by works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the ‘fin-de-siecle Gothic’ in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; to the ‘modernist Gothic’ aesthetics of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The fog, very generally, serves two primary functions in Gothic fiction. The first of these would be its use as a formal property of or device within the narrative. Since the fog is a naturally occurring phenomenon which may be neither contained nor controlled, it becomes an effectively ambiguous or sometimes ambivalent (it is exterior to law and morality) means for abetting or protracting plotlines. In Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles for instance, it aids the criminal’s escape, yet at the same time becomes ultimately responsible for his death, while remaining inculpable. Secondly, Gothic fiction tends to be heavily punctuated by the richly suggestive metaphorical qualities of the fog, particularly in the ways it accentuates - not exclusively - the senses of mystery, intrigue, horror and the sublime. Its appearance in Frankenstein’s exterior landscapes evokes its sublime quality, casting upon the landscape the air of the ineffable and unknowable. It is, at the same time a shroud that prevents clarity and knowledge, suggestive of the way it enforces a metaphorical ‘blindness’, which reappears close to a century later in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is similarly endowed, but in this work the fog takes on a miasmatic presence in the ways it encircles terror, the supernatural, and death. Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, reworks the fog into his urbanscape to heighten the inscrutability and unease of human concentrations in city spaces. The fog has persistently endured through most ‘Gothicisms’, its literal and connotative aspects perfect allies for representing, heightening, and accentuating the Gothic poetics of the uncertain, the uncanny and the ineffable.
The Gothic fog is a physical manifestation of all the unwanted consequences of the Industrial Revolution on the nineteenth-century cityscape. The new industries that were mushrooming around the city belched out smoke and exhaust gases that polluted its landscape and resulted in many bodily afflictions for its residents. Hence, with modern technologies came the simultaneous rise of the “sickly city” and environmental degradation, two of many adversities resulting from industrialization.
The pervasiveness of the fog—as seen in R. L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—also suggests that the city is becoming an inescapable entity which one is forced to contend with. The fog will permeate the countryside just as the city will encroach upon even the farthest boundaries of the land. Even the human form is not spared from the harmful residual effects of the burgeoning modern city. A person’s constant inhalation of the foggy air may corrupt his senses, creating the ghastly “monsters” that we see in much of Gothic literature.
Because the fog also obscures one’s vision and hides things from view, it also becomes a criminal ally to the deceptiveness of the city, whose architecture is full of secret alleyways and unseen street corners. The blurry fog therefore fuels the feelings of suspicion and mistrust among the city dwellers, because one can no longer perceive another person’s true nature, just as how the city’s physical landscape has been irretrievably tainted with the fog.
Courtesy of Hanna Maryam, and Terry Tay, National University of Singapore