Fog of War
To say that I’m a fan of author Brad Harmer-Barnes would be something of an understatement. I’m a firm believer that Mr Harmer-Barnes is one of the best action-thriller writers I’ve ever come across in the genre, with a particular skill for writing ‘creature-feature’ stories that are imaginative and original takes on the ‘gigantic monster fights humanity’ trope that has become so over-done and stale in the past few years. I first discovered him when I stumbled across his third title, Vietnam Black, after it had recently been published by Severed Press; in a genre so stuffed with unimaginative and derivative potboilers, I was thrilled to discover an author who imbued his novel with imagination and enthusiasm, as well as three-dimensional characters and a genuinely disturbing and horrifying creature – in this case an oversized and heavily-armoured centipede roaming the jungles of Vietnam.
His other novels impressed me just as much, and as such I’ve kept an open eye out for new titles from him, particularly from Severed Press, who I know to be a publisher of quality genre fiction. So when I saw that Mr Harmer-Barnes was not only having a other title published by Severed Press, but that it was a horror title set during the Second World War and involving the crew of a British tank fighting through occupied France, I was genuinely excited. That description seemed to cover almost everything I could ever want in a horror book, and as such it was the first time that I’ve actually approached Severed Press to request a review copy of Fog of War.
I’ve always been impressed by the cover art that Severed Press commission for Harmer-Barnes’ titles, but I think that the illustration for Fog of War may be the best yet, just edging out the superb job done for Vietnam Black. Against a grey, smoke-filled background, a late-war British tank – the Comet, perhaps the best medium tank developed by Britain during the Second World War – stands on a field of skulls and shattered bones. In the background a gigantic skull looms sinisterly behind the tank, framed by an appropriately subdued title and author name. It’s another fantastically evocative piece of cover art from the publisher, and really sets the mood for the fiction that’s to come inside the cover.
Harmer-Barnes has always been exceptionally good at crafting atmosphere, and that skill continues to be demonstrated in Fog of War; quite literally, in fact, in the opening pages of the book’s Prologue. We are introduced to a small and isolated French village which, until now, has successfully avoided the horrors of war and occupation. Unfortunately that luck has abruptly come to an end, the village’s inhabitants have come under the thrall of a squad of German soldiers and the Waffen-SS officer seconded to lead them, and blood is inevitably shed. In the space of a few pages, Harmer-Barnes deftly highlights the occult response to this war crime, with the squad becoming afflicted by a strange, fast-moving fog that soon blankets the entire village and renders even the closest person as a mere shadow of themselves. But there are more than shadows lurking in the mist, and in true creature-feature movie fashion the Wehrmacht troops soon meet their richly-deserved fate in a tense and unsettling scene that’s – to use a certain cliché – extremely cinematic in tone and the way that the author describes it.
From there, Harmer-Barnes introduces us to the crew of a British tank, and our protagonist Private Wilbur Alexander who has only just graduated from training and is witnessing the war in Europe for the first time. The author does a great job in grounding Alexander and the rest of his crew in the realities of war, especially that strange contradiction between the brief periods of actual fighting, and the long stretches where nothing actually happens except tension and boredom. It’s a common cliché in wartime novels that characters have to be seen to be fighting and nothing else, but it’s a reality that there was far more ‘Hurry up and wait’ than there was gunfire and bloodshed. It’s an excellent way to both introduce the tank’s crew, and start up some low-key tension before the real horror begins. As a tread-head, or tank fan, I also appreciated that Harmer-Barnes devoted some time to exploring the prestige and glamour that came with serving with the Royal Armoured Corps and fighting in a tank; it’s far too easy to take tanks and other Armoured Fighting Vehicles for granted these days, but as Harmer-Barnes highlights, the mythology and grandeur that grew up around tanks – from the famous Battle of Cambrai, to the North African campaigns that were shown in film-reels in cinemas across Britain – attracted no end of recruits like Private Alexander.
The camaraderie of a close-knit tank crew is very well portrayed, especially in the way that a carefully-measured casualness develops as a way of dealing with the things that each man has to face. There’s a lot of banter and cheerfulness, occasionally forced, and even a certain lack of deference to the officer class, all of which helps to ground the crew members and provide them personalities and quirks which flesh them out. This in something that Harmer-Barnes is excellent at achieving in his titles, and thereby makes him better than 95% of the authors in this particular genre. I was also impressed by the authenticity to be found in the portrayal of how the Comet crew actually operated and functioned within the tank; as a tread-head I was concerned that this might be glossed over somewhat, but again Harmer-Barnes has obviously done his research, and throughout the book we get a surprisingly detailed and realistic depiction of what it was like for a British tank crew – the isolation from the rest of the battlefield, the insular and badly cramped conditions, and how the ever-present danger of dying within a steel coffin results in a very strong and unique kind of brotherhood. All of these are strong indications of Harmer-Barnes’ skill as a writer, and they also make the coming supernatural horror all the more engaging for the reader.
As the tank crew are sent on a reconnaissance mission as part of the vanguard of the Allied advance into Occupied France, Harmer-Barnes gets a chance to stretch his literary muscles by providing atmosphere in the form of the liberated regions of France that the tank travels through. It’s a key part of the book’s atmosphere and it’s incredibly well done, being hugely evocative and even emotional at times; such is his skill as a writer that it’s easy to forget that this is primarily a supernatural horror title, as Harmer-Barnes deftly illustrates the entirely man-made horrors that resulted from the campaign to free France from the German occupying forces. The devastation caused to the environment and the French population acts as a fantastically tense background to the horror that rapidly unfolds when the tank crew enter the deserted village of Demetier, summoned by an urgent request for help from American troops supposedly engaged by Germans. What they find, however, is very much different and infinitely more horrifying than what they’ve seen so far. The mist becomes a fog that gets thicker and thicker with time, and strange shadows begin to appear and stalk the new arrivals. Although mist and fog have been used before in horror titles it’s still incredibly creepy and tense if used correctly, and Harmer-Barnes uses it superbly, wielding it like a horror supremo to ratchet up the tension. Particularly unsettling, for characters and readers alike, is the haunting singing that comes in snatches from random directions in the mist, and I had to suppress a shudder or two from time to time as I was reading. By the last few chapters, Fog of War feels like nothing less than a classic Hammer Horror film that never quite got made – sneering villains, plucky heroes, terrifying scenes of horror as figures in the mist hunt and kill anyone they can get their hands on to try and assuage their occult-based anger, all wrapped up with Harmer-Barnes’ distinctive and highly effective writing style, and vivid imagination.
The only fly in the ointment, as far as Fog of War goes, are some odd mistakes in terms of copy-editing and narrative research choices. Unlike many reviewers, I have a fairly relaxed approach to typos and copy-editing mistakes, particularly if an author is self-publishing or working with a smaller publisher, and as long as the general narrative flow makes sense then I just try and take it in my stride. However, there were perhaps more than the usual number of typos that occasionally caused the immersive experience to be broken, particularly when some confusion arose in the later chapters around the ranks of certain characters – and even when a previously dead character sprang back to life for a paragraph before being replaced by the correct one! There were also a few errors in historical research that surprised me, especially given how well researched the rest of the novel was and managed to avoid many stereotypes and tropes. The Swastika, for example, wasn’t used as a symbol of the German military from 1920, it was actually more than a decade later; and I suspect that Waffen-SS officers didn’t habitually carry business cards that gave their name and rank! There is a final point, but I’ll happily note that this is purely from a ‘tread-head’ point of view: there’s a rather casual attitude to tank models in the narrative. I was happy to go along with the use of the Comet as the tank of choice for the crew, given that it was an iconic design in the later stages of the war in the European campaign and was introduced in December 1944, only a few months after the Normandy landings, making it only a minor anachronism. The casual mention in conversation, however, that a veteran crewmember had been driving a Cromwell during the North African campaign – a model of tank that wouldn’t be introduced for several years after that campaign had finished – was rather more difficult to ignore. That was all that I found, and I’d like to be at pains to say that the majority of these issues are only very minor gripes that would really only bother an experienced ‘tread-head’ such as myself, who freely acknowledges that I obsess over to perhaps an unhealthy degree.
Even taking into account my (very) minor gripes above, there is no denying that Fog of War is another phenomenal achievement by Brad Harmer-Barnes, and yet another credit to Severed Press as its publisher. Exhibiting his usual high level of writing skill and innate understanding of how to engage his readers and ensure that they rapidly buy into the scenario that he is depicting, Harmer-Barnes has created another winning title that comes across as a Hammer Horror film that never was, tapping into that vein of quiet, creeping and deeply atmospheric horror that he then escalates into a situation that is downright terrifying for characters and readers alike.