Dr Elizabeth Dearnley discusses the eerier side of the capital and her recent book Into the London Fog, ahead of her upcoming online talk at the City of Westminster Libraries and Archives.
Near the beginning of Hitchcock’s 1927 silent chiller The Lodger, respectable, lace-collared landlady Mrs Bunting opens her door to a tall, cloaked man with his face muffled in a scarf, pale brown fog drifting into the hall as she decides whether to let him cross the threshold.
Adapted from Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel of the same name, Hitchcock’s film – subtitled ‘A Story of the London Fog’ – encapsulates the tale’s central fear in this shivery doorstep encounter. What dangers linger just outside the apparent safety of an ordinary London terrace, hidden by fog, darkness, or simply the anonymity of the city? And what happens when the safe and sinister sides of London meet?
Since moving to London at 19 I’ve been fascinated by the city’s weirder mythologies, from the fog-wreathed fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sarah Waters to bizarre urban legends like Spring-Heeled Jack, a fire-breathing phantom featuring in several Victorian newspaper reports. So putting together Into the London Fog, an anthology of uncanny tales, ghost stories and urban legends set in London, for the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series was pretty much a dream project. The only rule was that the stories had to take place in a London district, whether the damask-curtained Marylebone terrace of Belloc Lowndes’ original 1911 short story The Lodger or the sleekly modern Bloomsbury of E F Benson’s urbane horror tale The Chippendale Mirror. Drawn from a range of sources including Victorian periodicals, pulp fiction magazines, tale collections and autobiographies, the stories and essays span the mid-19th to mid-20th century, all written during the decades when London was at its foggiest.
London’s reputation for fog dates back to the 1840s, following its rapid expansion during the Industrial Revolution. Geography makes it naturally fog-prone. The low-lying Thames basin, surrounded by hills, meant that mist, dampness, and smoke from the growing city had been observed hanging in the air centuries beforehand. In 1661, for instance, the diarist John Evelyn lamented the ‘pernicious Smoake which sullyes all [London’s] Glory’. But the dense yellow-brown haze which came to be known as ‘London fog’ – sulphuric soot particles from fires and factories mixed with water vapour – became an increasingly common phenomenon from the early Victorian period onwards, noted by Londoners and visitors alike.
The growing associations between London and fog both in reality and in the popular imagination turned it into a literary trope, often as a sooty stand-in for the murkily degenerate city itself. A thick pea-souper could make even the most densely populated area feel isolated and unknowable, with previously familiar landmarks appearing fuzzy and distorted. Yet fog could also be comforting and thrilling in equal measures; anything could materialise out of the smoke at any moment, magnifying the excitement as well of the threats of what Henry James called the ‘delightful, dreadful city’.
Ghost stories and weird tales provide a space to explore many of these urban anxieties. The cobwebbed underside of the fairy tale, horror stories have always been used to work through collective societal fears, whether the concern that wolves might gobble you up if you stray from the path or the suspicion that a serial killer might be stalking the streets. The urban eerie tale often focuses on the contrast between civilised, brightly-lit modernity and darker, atavistic fears about what might lie just beyond the glow of the streetlamp – and the constant possibility that one might slip from one side to the other. The weird London fiction of Arthur Machen, for instance, turns on the potential for the most quotidian city street to suddenly reveal something strange. Whether uncovering occult societies in Clerkenwell or stumbling across sinister rituals in Green Park, Machen’s stories peel away the skin of the most ordinary-seeming places to reveal the weirdness thrumming beneath.
With the disappearance of true London fog in the years following the Clean Air Act of 1956, later fictional depictions of fog have often taken on an oddly nostalgic quality, a tangible, sepia-tinged indication that we are now in a less healthy, but more mysterious, past. On-screen portrayals of the city use fog as shorthand for ‘Victorian London’, from Basil Rathbone’s 1939 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the 2014–16 gothic fantasy series Penny Dreadful. Recasting ordinary streets in a ghostly twilight haze, fog can make London feel both familiar and unfamiliar, cosy and uncosy, in a way that Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ identifies as uncanny: ‘that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well-known’. It is this uneasy flickering between the two which makes fog such an effective symbol of London weirdness.
Like London fog itself, the power of the weird tale lies in its potential to suddenly shift from benign to baleful as the light changes. The stories in Into the London Fog invite you to take a closer look at some of the more uncanny corners of the city, just out of sight – but all you need to do is turn into a sidestreet, or look up, or down.
‘Into the London Fog: An eerie tour through the weird city’ is hosted online by City of Westminster Libraries and Archives on Thursday 28 January at 6.30pm GMT. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance here.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, and events and research projects officer at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her work explores eerie landscapes and folklore, and she is currently writing a book about forests and fairy tales. She can be found on Twitter @eliza_dearniey.
Cover image: Fog at Westminster, London, CC BY-SA 4.0 / George Tsiagalaki, desaturated from original.