Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors – the archival quest for Anton Walbrook

The first ‘archival encounter’ discussed in my paper: the ephemera I was asked to catalogue in 2009 that fired my interest in Walbrook.

As most readers of this blog will know, for over a decade I have been working on a biography of the émigré actor Adolf Wohlbrück /Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), but this weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about this work as part of the Stardom and the Archive conference held at the University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020. The conference was organised as part of the Reframing Vivien Leigh research project – I have written about the relationship between Walbrook and Leigh elsewhere on these pages – and its aims are summarised here:

Conventional critical discourse focuses overwhelmingly on the findings of archival research rather than the process with scholarship telling ‘a story about what you found, but not about how you found it.’ (Kaplan 1990: 103) The Stardom and the Archive symposium seeks to challenge this convention by centralising archival process and curatorial histories in researching stardom.

The conference has seen film scholars from all over the UK and beyond, including Australia and Turkey, come together to discuss diverse aspects of archival research, curatorial practice and fan collecting in relation to stardom. The range and quality of the papers so far has been fantastic, with an imaginative scope that includes gravesites and multi-media artefacts as well as the more traditional paper-based archives.

It was a great delight, as ever, to talk about Walbrook in the presence of such distinguished and appreciative company. My presentation was entitled Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject and discussed the different phases of archival engagement involved in writing my biography, including the challenges of dealing with gaps in the archive, the complex relationship between Walbrook’s onscreen persona, his life as a private individual and the archival record of both his life and career. It was also an opportunity to discuss the creation of my own Walbrook collection – an archive of my research as much as a fan collection – and share some of its treasures.

My collection includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, photographs, film stills, presscutting files and 16mm film reels, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films, and I raised the issue of how the agenda of the collector relates to that of the biographer or researcher.

This offered a chance to revist the exhibition Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma, which I curated at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum back in 2013. Anyone wishing to know more about this should watch the excellent short film made by Olivia Luder and available to watch here. As another aspect of archival engagement, I also discussed the brilliant artwork by Matt Horan (Matt Mclaren), which he created by painting scenes from Walbrook’s films, cutting out the images and then reassembling them in 3-D scenarios which were then photographed and turned into prints. My paper ended with a call for more collaborations like these, in which scholars, archivists, curators, artists and fans can learn from one another through sharing their different passions and fields of expertise.

Now it’s time to return for Day Two of the conference, which will close with the launch of the new Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition!

Anton Artefact #7

Part of the value of looking at historical artefacts is that they often reveal things about how an artwork or event fitted into its contemporary surroundings. The cutting below was snipped out of a British newspaper in 1940 – the rest of the paper has gone, so I don’t have a precise date, but we know that Gaslight received its general release on 31 August 1940, following the trade and press shows at the end of May and beginning of June.

‘Gaslight’ advert, cut out of a British newspaper from 1940

As many of you will be aware, cinema-going habits in the 1930s and 1940s were very different from ours. Cinema tickets cost only a shilling or two at most, often less, and it was quite common to go to the movies two or three times a week. Films were shown several times a day, but not in isolation as is the case now – they were part of a longer and varied programme which ran almost continuously throughout the day, and would include newsreels, short films, serial episodes, documentary features and cartoons.

It can be seen here that there were four daily screenings – Midday, 2.55, 6.00 and 9.15 pm. Showing alongside Gaslight were two other films – Memories of Poland, which was presumably a short documentary relating to the country’s past prior to the Nazi invasion the previous year, and Alias the Deacon (Cabanne, 1940), a wild west comedy about a card sharp named Deke Caswell who is mistaken for a clergyman. The lead role was played by Bob Burns, a musical comedian famed for playing a home-made instrument which he called his ‘Bazooka’ – a name that was later applied by American soldiers to their anti-tank weapon, due to its similar shape.

For those of us who have only watched old AW films in the comfort of our homes on DVD or video, or at special screenings attended largely by nostalgic fans, film historians and others who may have travelled large distances at some expense to attend these rare events, it is worth thinking about the differences in our cinema-going experience. How would it feel watching Gaslight straight after a cowboy film with a comedian playing his bazooka? Would the contrast make the film seem darker, or would there be a light-hearted atmosphere in the auditorium that might mitigate its sinister psychological undercurrents? What if the audience contained large numbers of casual viewers who had just popped in for something to do, to watch the latest newsreels or catch some cartoons while avoiding the rain? Admission times were not enforced in the same way, and it was not unusual for people to wander in halfway through a film and continue to watch through the entire programme until the first half of the film came round again. There may well have been differences between smaller provincial cinemas and more prestigious venues like the Leicester Square Odeon, to which this advert refers.

Another interesting feature of the advert is he reference to Lady Anne Henrietta Yule (1874-1950), a wealthy widow who became involved in the British film industry following the death of her husband, businessman Sir Andrew Yule. She cofounded the British National film company with Gaslight producer John Corfield and J. Arthur Rank, with whom she shared strong religious views, and went on to invest in the company’s acquisition of Pinewood Studios. She also helped finance The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Eccentric and patriotic, she was a keen supporter of various charitable and wartime causes, such as the Allied Services Club for which the day’s cinema takings were being collected. How might awareness of this collection have influenced cinemagoers’ attendance?

‘A grim study of the morbid’ – Gaslight and Gothic


Tonight, as part of their Gothic season, the BFI are screening their newly remastered print of Thorold Dickinson’s neo-Victorian thriller Gaslight (1940), and to mark the occasion I thought I would post a few notes about the film and its Gothic elements – including, of course, Walbrook’s portrayal of the villainous Paul Mallen. All the images below are of items in my own collection, as usual.

This is the cover of the first edition of William Drummond’s novel, published in the Paperback Library Gothic series in September 1966. The notes on the back cover hammer home the publisher’s belief in the story’s Gothic credentials: “The Greatest Gothic Thriller of All Time!” a “nerve-shattering novelization of that modern masterpiece of Gothic terror and suspense” and “a genuine candidate for honors in the Gothic field.” The lurid plot synopsis emphasises the classic Gothic themes of a beautiful damsel in distress, an evil house, incarceration and madness –

Bella was trapped in the evil mansion on Angel Street – a helpless victim whose safety and sanity was as uncertain as the flickering gaslight that filled her with horror!

Lying in drugged terror in her bedroom, beautiful Bella suspects that her own husband, sinister Mr. Manningham, is driving her mad. But can she be sure? As she fights the whirlpool of insanity, again and again Mr. Manningham threatens to put her into an asylum. 

This picture of Bella shows her looking thoughtful rather than terrified, and it should be noted that Drummond’s characterisation of Bella differs considerably from that seen in the film: in the novel she has received a classical education and has a much more vigorous and inquiring mind. Diana Wynyard’s performance is an exquisite portrait of innocence and vulnerability, which makes her humilation at Mallen’s hands all the more painful to watch.

The following year saw the publication in Britain of this paperback, issued by Arrow Books. Most of the text on the back cover repeats the blurb from the American edition.

The cover picture, like the one above, consists of three key images – the female victim, the male villain, and the fog-shrouded gaslight; it is around this trilogy that the entire story revolves. Although subtitled ‘A Victorian Thriller in Three Acts’, Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play lacks the complex plot twists and revelations that are typically found in 19th century crime mysteries. The suspense is psychological rather than plot-driven, and the film therefore depends heavily upon strong performances from the actors: Walbrook as Mallen, Diana Wynyard as Bella, with support from Frank Pettingell as Sergeant Rough, Catherine Cordell as the vixenish maid Nancy, and Robert Newton as Bella’s cousin, Viscount Ullswater.

Gaslight‘s atmosphere of threat and menace is made more disturbing by the carefully crafted domestic setting, highlighting the contrast between the genteel Victorian household and the murder and insanity that lurk within. In a moment of appalling hypocrisy, Mallen leads the household in family prayers, picking up the Bible to read the opening line of Psalm 127: ‘Except the Lord builds the house…’ It is in fact the dark and violent history of the house that is disturbing both husband and wife; such a troubled relationship between a house’s past and present is another classic trope of the Gothic tradition.

There are many other literary echoes in Hamilton’s Victorian pastiche. The name of Sergeant Rough is probably meant to recall that of Wilkie Collins’ character Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868) – one of the first detectives in fiction, and an archetypal figure for subsequent detective heroes.  Similarities exist between the plot of Gaslight and that of Collins’ earlier novel The Woman in White (1859) – a wicked and avaricious husband exercising despotic control over his wife, concealed identities, falsified family histories, and the incarceration of a healthy married woman in an asylum for “delusions” that are in fact true. Parallels can also be made to Jane Eyre (1847), with Mrs Mallen’s virtual imprisonment in her Westminster townhouse echoing the incarceration of Mrs Rochester’s in the attic at Thornfield.  Gaslight shows the absolute power that could be wielded by a Victorian husband over his wife, and it is worth remembering that, until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, women like Bella Mallen had no control over their money and property, which were the legal possession of her husband. It is rather ironic that Walbrook was fresh from triumphant performances as wholesome Prince Albert Albert in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), before participating in Hamilton’s attack on the dark side of Victorian masculinity.

Viewers of the film were impressed by Walbrook’s performance, which proved – as one letter-writer in The Picturegoer put it – thathe can be as good a villain as hero.’  Lionel Collier, in the same magazine, called Gaslight ‘a piece of Grand Guignol’ and added, ‘Anton Walbrook is brilliant as the merciless, calculating murderer. It is a grim study of the morbid.’

Although we never see Mallen striking Bella, the presence of domestic violence is symbolised by the Punch and Judy show taking place beneath their window in Pimlico Square.  The archetypal tale of such domestic cruelty is of course Bluebeard, a legend explicitly cited in the 1944 MGM remake of Gaslight, where Bella (renamed Paula Alquist in the Hollywood version) falls into a conversation on a train with an old lady who is reading a Gothic novel based on the Bluebeard story, and then moves on to relate this to the murder of Paula’s aunt in London. Although there is no ‘forbidden chamber’ at No. 12 Pimlico Square, Bella’s discovery of secret objects – such as the the letters locked away inside Mallen’s bureau – reveal the truth about her husband’s real identity and murderous past, thus placing her life in further danger. As with Bluebeard, she does not save herself but relies on male intervention from outside the house. However, there is a clever twist at the end of the play, when Bella locks herself and Mallen inside the bedroom alone, and throws away the key; now the villain is unprotected, the police are on the other side of a locked door, and he is alone with a madwoman who has fully realised the extent of her husband’s evil…..


Patrick Hamilton got the central idea for his play – the image of dimming gas lights – from a crime novel written by his brother Bruce Hamilton, To Be Hanged (1930.)

Written during 1937 it was first performed at the Richmond Theatre in Surrey on 5 December 1938, produced by Gardner Davies. It soon transferred to the west end, opening at the Apollo Theatre on 31 January 1939. George VI and Queen Elizabeth were among those who saw the play.

The part of the villainous husband was played by Denis Arundell, who had a small role alongside Walbrook in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp four years later. On 19 March 1939 Arundell and the rest of the cast performed the play before BBC cameras at Alexandra Palace, enabling it to be broadcast live for television audiences (then numbering well under 100,000 households in the UK.) 

The play later moved to Broadway, where it opened under the title of Angel Street on 5 December 1941 – two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Manningham’s role was played by Vincent Price and the production ran for four years, bringing Hamilton considerable wealth.  When the MGM film starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman was released in Britain it went under the title of The Murder in Thornton Square to avoid confusion with the British original.


This is an early promotional poster for Gaslight, issued with Kinematograph Weekly magazine in January 1940. The director’s name is given here as Anthony Asquith; within a few days he would be replaced by Thorold Dickinson.

Although I am a huge admirer of Dickinson’s work, I remain curious as to what Asquith would have done with Gaslight. He proved himself a skilled director of theatrical adaptations, but the atmospheric power of some of his early silent films – especially A Cottage on Dartmoor – suggests he could have made something quite special out of Hamilton’s play. In the same year that Hollywood remade Gaslight, Asquith produced a costume drama for Gainsborough Studios – Fanny by Gaslight – which is also set in late Victorian London and features another black-caped villain, this time played by James Mason.


The poor condition of this glass plate is due to its having been discovered on a rubbish dump in Scotland. Someone once suggested to me that it was a beer mat, but the plate is in fact a lantern slide, hand made for the purpose of advertising Gaslight to cinema audiences: the image would have been projected onto the cinema screen prior to another film being shown, in the same way that trailers are now shown. The use of such slides persisted into the 1950s, and even later in some places.













On the left is a Spanish handbill advertising Gaslight at the ‘Cine Victoria’ in Silla. The reverse of the bill promises that the film will deliver ‘Gran emocion!’ and ‘Intenso dramatismo!’, although the promoters obviously thought a picture of can-can dancers would widen the film’s appeal. The image of Walbrook and Wynyard is clearly based on the film still on the right, which was issued as a postcard by Picturegoer magazine.

The two actors had already proved their ability to work well together in Noel Coward’s comedy Design for Living, which opened in the West End in January 1939 and ran – at various venues  – for twelve months, allowing the two stars only a short break before they began filming Gaslight. 



The relationship between Otto (Walbrook) and Gilda (Wynyard) in Design for Living is utterly different from the tortured married life of the Mallens; Coward’s play revolved around a Bohemian menage-a-trois shared with Rex Harrison. Cathleen Cordell, who played Nancy in Gaslight, was another cast member – she played a young newly wed named Helen Carver, seen here on the sofa in a scene from Act III.

Nancy is shown below, greeting the Mallens on their arrival at No.12 Pimlico Square, on this French publicity sheet about Gaslight. Mallen’s flirting with the maid is just another means of tormenting Bella, but it also signifies the power that he holds over the women in his house. His dark, Byronic magnetism is revealed by Nancy’s confession to her master, ‘I always wanted you, ever since I clapped eyes on you.’  Walbrook played very few villains in his career, and the crimes of Captain Suvorin (Queen of Spades, 1949) and Major Esterhazy (I Accuse, 1959) pale alongside the impenitent cruelty of Mallen. It is only at the end, when we see him unkempt and hysterical, oblivious to those around him as he claws at the rubies, that it becomes apparent how much his mind has been damaged by this twenty year obsession. Is the revelation of insanity a punishment for his crimes or a plea for mitigation? In the dark heart of Gothic, such questions are often easier to ask than to answer.


Birthday Note: Anton and his directors

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Anton Walbrook, and to celebrate the occasion I am posting a selection of photographs that show the actor at work. During his long career, AW was privileged to collaborate with some of the most distinguished film-makers of the time, and so here are some photographs showing them together.

Director Karl Hartl with some of his extras in the countryside near Potsdam, filming ‘Zigeunerbaron’ – FIlmwelt 18 November 1934

With Willi Forst on the set of ‘Allotria’ – from ‘Filmwelt’ 5 April 1936
This photo shows AW, Hilde Hildebrand and Heinz Ruhmann being directed by Willi Forst, with whom AW had previously worked in Maskerade (1934.)

With Thorold Dickinson on the set of ‘The Queen of Spades’ – from The Picturegoer 8 May 1948
AW worked twice with Dickinson, who drew brilliant performances from him in both Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949). This photo also shows cinematographer Otto Heller (1896-1970) who filmed AW no less than four times. Born in Prague, he worked with fellow Czech Carl Lamac on Baby (1932) and Die vertauschte Braut (1934), in both of which AW co-starred with Lamac’s wife Anny Ondra. Port Arthur (Farkas, 1936) was filmed in Prague and was AW’s last film before leaving Nazi Germany. Heller followed him to the UK in 1940.

A photo taken in 1951 during the filming of ‘Vienna Walzes’, with director Emil Reinert on the right

With Michael Powell during the filming of ‘Oh, Rosalinda!!’
Oh, Rosalinda!! was the fourth and final of AW’s films with Powell and Pressburger, after 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948). Many of these films shared the same cast and crew members – a reflection of the close-knit collaborative nature of Powell and Pressburger’s own ​creative partnership.

With Emeric Pressburger during the filming of ‘Oh, Rosalinda!!’

Seasons of Mist


This was the view from my bedroom window a couple of days ago, and when driving up through the Exe Valley last week I noticed thick banks of white mist hanging over the fields to the side of the road and thought of Keats’ lines in Ode to Autumn:
                                                         Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
                                                        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.

Autumn is almost upon us now, and I like the pleasing contrast between the white mist and the piles of bronze and gold leaves that are starting to accumulate on the ground. I call it ‘mist’ rather than ‘fog’ because I’ve always associated the latter with the sea. Strictly speaking, however, the distinction lies in visibility: fog is thicker than mist, and there is a precise point at which one becomes the other.  Hill-walkers, drivers, seafarers, pilots and others have good reason to dislike such treacherous conditions: routes are hidden from view, dangers concealed, sounds are muffled and distances become hard to judge. Fear of what lies within the mist, or fog,  is also a familiar trope from the worlds of film and literature. Perhaps the most notorious example would be London’s ‘pea-souper’ fogs, which have provided the atmosphere (literally) for numerous acts of murder and skulduggery by Victorian villains.


Contrary to popular belief, Conan Doyle never used the term ‘pea-souper’ in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Another common misconception is that the Whitechapel murders ascribed to ‘Jack the Ripper’ took place in thick fog, when in actual fact the killings ceased during the month of October 1888 – the only time when there really was a pea-souper.  These murders provided the inspiration for Hitchcock’s silent thriller The Lodger (1927)starring Ivor Novello as the suspected serial killer. Its full title is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Although Novello’s appearance matches the description of the killer as ‘wearing a scarf over the lower part of his face’ (above) many Londoners at this time would have masked their faces in the same or similar ways to protect themselves from the damp unhealthy air. Is the lodger the killer? Viewers’ inability to decide  is just another aspect of the fog’s power to dull our powers of perception.


There is more confusion over mistaken identity in the film Footsteps in the Fog (1955), set in the early 1900s and based on a short story by W.W. Jacobs, the author of the classic horror tale The Monkey’s Paw. It starred the then husband and wife team of Stewart Grainger and Jean Simmons, caught up in a dark plot of murder and blackmail. The basic set-up – murderous husband teaming up with flirty maid – recalls the dysfunctional household in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight which was filmed in 1940 by Thorold Dickinson and then remade in Hollywood in 1944.  Again, fog is used to hint at villainy – when we first see Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) leave the house and sets out on one of his nocturnal missions (below).



Sergeant Rough, wrapped up against the London fog with the same thoroughness as Ivor Novello – although falling short of the latter’s sartorial elegance – is able to use the fog as a cover for following Mallen as he crosses the square.


Gaslight was set around 1885, but as late as December 1952 thousands of Londoners died during a dense smog that enveloped the capital for several days. This led to the Clean Air Act (1956) which sought to banish black smoke in urban areas through the introduction of smokeless fuels. It took many years, but London’s pea-soupers eventually became a thing of the past. Times were changing in other ways, as the televised Coronation in March 1953 encouraged huge numbers of British households to invest in TV sets. The 1950s are now regarded now as the ‘golden age of science fiction’ and programmes made for television began exploring themes of space travel, frightening technology and strange creatures from other worlds. Most of these were aimed at young audiences, but a six-part series The Quatermass Experiment – broadcast in six half-hour episodes on Saturday evenings in July-August 1953 – was aimed at adults, and proved amazingly popular: when the last episode was broadcast on 22 August 1953, audience figures were estimated  at around 5  million. The film industry took notice, and Hammer Films bought the rights, releasing The Quatermass Xperiment in cinemas in 1955. In America, it was renamed The Crawling Terror and was equally successful.

Although less famous, The Trollenberg Terror followed a similar trajectory to Quatermass. Occupying the same Saturday evening slot, it was broadcast in six episodes between 15 December 1956 and 19 January 1957, and then quickly bought up and remade into a film for release in 1958. In America it was renamed The Crawling Eye, possibly to capitalise on audience’s familiarity with the Quatermass film, although ‘crawling eyes’ is a perfect description of the monsters. Their appearance, however, is concealed until the end of the film by a cloud of mist; this aspect of the film, one might argue, was a direct influence upon later horror films such as The Fog (1980) and The Mist (2007.)

Most of the action takes place on the Trollenberg, a mountain in the Swiss alps which has been partially covered by a mysterious cloud that remains static over the south slopes. The phenomena is being monitored by scientists from a nearby observatory, led by Professor Crevett (actor Warren Mitchell, soon to become better known as Cockney bigot Alf Garnett), who has detected high levels of radioactivity in the cloud. This is not the only sinister happening: since the cloud’s appearance, mountain climbers have been found with their heads torn off. Crevett is joined by his old friend Alan Brooks, a United Nations expert who investigated similar goings-on in the Andes three years earlier.  He arrived at Trollenberg along with two sisters, Anne and Sarah Pilgrim.


Anne Pilgrim (played by the lovely Janet Munro) is in fact telepathic, and has just finished performing a mind-reading show in London with her older sister Sarah (Jennifer Jayne.) Later, Anne’s psychic powers forge a link with the alien creatures in the mist, allowing her to visualize events on the mountainside and direct rescue operations. The aliens sense her power and try to have her killed by human ‘zombies’ whose minds they control. The presence of the sisters is one of the more intriguing elements in a film that – although full of absurdities – I have enjoyed watching several times.




John Carpenter saw The Crawling Eye as a child, and provided at least some of the inspiration behind his film The Fog (1980.) During their commentary for the 2002 special edition DVD of The Fog both he and producer Debra Hill refer to it as one of their favourite films. Carpenter’s image of the fog billowing under Dan O’Bannon’s doorway and entering his room is just one of several incidents that are reminiscent of those that took place on the Trollenberg. Another source of inspiration was a visit to Stonehenge made by Carpenter and Hill in 1977 when they witnessed a fog bank ‘just sitting on the horizon, way past Stonehenge’ causing Carpenter to wonder ‘what if there’s something in that fog?’

The malevolent beings concealed within the fog are, in this film, ghostly rather than alien: exactly one hundred years earlier, in 1880, the founders of the Antonio Bay community lit false beacons to lure a ship onto the rocks – a cruel trick allegedly employed by wreckers in Devon and Cornwall in years gone by (as depicted in Jamaica Inn for example), although there seems to be little documentary evidence to support these tales. All those aboard died in the wreck, but their vengeful spirits have returned on the night of the town’s centenary celebrations, and are intent on claiming the lives of six descendants of the original murderers.


The horrific killings take place within an eerie bank of glowing fog, that rolls in from the sea. As in The Trollenberg Terror the cloud of fog defies nature, moving against the wind. Local radio broadcaster Stevie Wayne (played by Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau) plays a key role in the night’s events, as her radio station is located in a lighthouse overlooking the bay. From this vantage point she is able to provide a running commentary on the inexorable progress of the fog to her listeners. For me, the most memorable part of the film is listening to her voice:

               ‘It’s moving faster now, up Region Avenue, up to the end of Smallhouse Road…just hitting the outskirts of town…Broad Street…Clay Street… It’s moving down Tenth Street, get inside and lock your doors, close your windows…there’s something in the fog. If you’re on the south side of town, go north. Stay away from the fog…Richardsville Pike up to Beacon Hill is the only clear road. Up to the church. If you can get out of town, get to the old church. Now the junction at 101 is cut off..if you can get out of town, get to the old church. It’s the only place left to go. Get to the old church on Beacon Hill.’

Oddly enough, in James Herbert’s novel The Fog an empty church is also a place sought for sanctuary – but it is the fog that takes refuge there, rather than its victims. Apart from sharing the same name there is no relation between Carpenter’s film and Herbert’s novel, which was published in 1975. Interesting to note, nonetheless, that both men turned to the theme following their first big breakthrough. After a few minor films, Carpenter had just enjoyed his first great commercial success with Halloween (1978) and invited several of the actors to take roles in The Fog. Herbert’s first novel The Rats (1974) had sold out within weeks and attracted a great deal of attention – not all of it positive by any means – due to the graphic descriptions of death and violence. The Fog was written in the same vein and expanded upon The Rats’ theme of natural disaster brought upon by misguided government experiments; this would also form the basis of Stephen King’s novella The Mist. Herbert’s tale begins in Wiltshire when an earthquake unleashes a foul yellow fog that erupts from a crack in the earth and begins drifting through the southern counties of England. Those who are caught by it are affected mentally and the novel progresses through a series of horrific episodes in which the madness leads to murder, mass suicide, mutilation and sexual violence. The fog here does not conceal any monster other than itself; the fog is the horror, and it is slowly revealed that is has a biological life of its own.


 The horror within Stephen King’s Mist shares more similarities with that of the Trollenberg cloud than either of the Fog stories. The first film Stephen King remembers seeing was The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and he was about eleven years old when The Crawling Eye  was released in the USA. The film is referred to in his 1986 novel It, which is set around the time of the film’s release in the summer of 1958. King’s youthful immersion in popular culture – early horror and science-fiction films, radio drama serials such as Dimension X and E.C. comics like Tales from the Crypt – were important influences on his later writings.

               ‘There’s something in the mist!’

There are a few superficial parallels between The Trollenberg Terror and the 2007 film The Mist, which was director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of King’s novella of the same name, first published in the Dark Forces collection (1980). I was on holiday in Cornwall when I first read the story in 1985, after it had been republished in another anthology,  Skeleton Crew. It is by far the longest story in the collection but I read it all in one continuous session, curled up in a dormitory bed with my borrowed book and a packet of biscuits. It made quite an impression on me, and the only other story I can remember from that collection is The Raft.  My vision of the scenes differed rather a lot from that of Frank Darabont, who had already brought two of King’s other stories to the screen – The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999.) Many of King’s fans were displeased at the shocking twist – not in the book – with which Darabont decided to end the film. Personally, I approve of the ending. Few modern horror films contain genuine shocks; the final frames of The Mist have an undeniable impact that has unsettled audiences. The ending neatly confirms what has been true of all the films above – fog and mist not only conceal terrifying threats, but they cloud judgment as well as vision, rendering opaque the distinction between innocence and guilt










So when I’m walking across the fields again this week and happen to see banks of mist (or worse still, fog) drifting over the ground towards me, the question is bound to come to mind….what lies within?