By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Fog Horn’ is a 1951 short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), republished in 1953 as the opening story in his collection The Golden Apples of the Sun. The story, which is about a lighthouse whose foghorn emits a noise which attracts the attention of a primeval dinosaur living miles below the ocean, contains a number of key themes of Bradbury’s work, especially in its depiction of technology and the need for connection and companionship.
Before we offer an analysis of ‘The Fog Horn’, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘The Fog Horn’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man, named Johnny, who has been working at a remote lighthouse for three months with a man named McDunn, who has been working there for many years and who believes the sea is a mysterious world full of prehistoric life which man can barely comprehend.
McDunn tells Johnny that the lighthouse tower has a fog horn which makes a noise that sounds like an animal. He says that every year, a mysterious creature visits the lighthouse, supposedly beckoned by the noise of the fog horn, which seems to represent loneliness and deep emptiness.
Sure enough, as the two men wait that night, a vast creature around ninety or a hundred feet long emerges from the sea and approaches the tower. They identify the animal as some sort of dinosaur. Johnny, the narrator, is incredulous, despite having seen the creature with his own eyes.
When the fog horn blows, the creature responds with an anguished cry, and McDunn tells Johnny that he believes the monster has come up to the surface of the water, from where it has been hiding many miles under the ocean for a million years or more, because it has heard the fog horn and believes the tower is somehow calling to it, like a fellow creature calling out in fellowship.
They decide to switch off the fog horn and see what happens. However, this enrages the monster, which charges at the tower. Although they switch the fog horn back on, the monster is too caught up in its rage, and attacks the tower, making it shake. The two men head down into the cellar and hide there while the tower collapses, bringing an end to the noise of the fog horn. Now the only sound is that of the monster’s wailing lament.
The next day, rescuers arrive to free the two men from the cellar. They claim that the tower took a pummelling from the waves and that’s what made it crumble and fall. A year later, the narrator has got a new job inland, and McDunn works in the new lighthouse, which has been built from steel-reinforced concrete.
The monster, meanwhile, hasn’t reappeared, with McDunn convinced that it has gone away because it learnt you can’t love anything too much in life.
‘The Fog Horn’: analysis
The meaning of ‘The Fog Horn’ is perhaps best summarised by McDunn’s assertion, after the monster has approached the fog horn, that ‘that’s life for you’: ‘someone always waiting for someone who never comes home.’ As McDunn goes on to say, loving something (or someone) more than it loves us can lead us to want to destroy that thing, so it cannot hurt us any more. This is how McDunn himself interprets the monster’s attack on the lighthouse, but it also neatly points to the ‘moral’ of ‘The Fog Horn’.
McDunn’s statement towards the end of ‘The Fog Horn’, that the monster had learnt we cannot love anything too much in this life, is also clearly meant to be applied not just to this primeval creature from the ‘Deeps’ but also, by extension, to all human beings. One of the most humane and humanist features of Bradbury’s fiction is his sense of man as a deeply social being, who needs human contact, companionship, friendship, and communion with others.
This is what makes the dystopian police state of his story ‘The Pedestrian’ (which, perhaps for this reason, immediately followed ‘The Fog Horn’ in The Golden Apples of the Sun) so repellent: it is a world in which people have been conditioned to shun the streets and the night life of the city in favour of vegetating in front of the television every evening in their ‘tomblike’ homes. Such a life is not living, Bradbury says, unless we call it a living death.
‘The Fog Horn’ is another variation on this moral theme which emphasises the importance of connection and company. The monster is all alone, spurned by an ever-changing world, but the man-made fog horn (unusually in a Ray Bradbury story) is a piece of technology which represents a call for communion and coming together.
However, the horn is obviously a red herring (to borrow from the marine theme of the story), and when the monster discovers that it has, as it sees it, been tricked, it takes out its anger on the tower.
Love is a powerful emotion, but when we are spurned by those we love, that love may turn to hate – partly, as McDunn acknowledges, as a self-preservation mechanism. If we destroy the one we love who hurts us by not returning our love, they cannot hurt us any more (at least, so the reasoning usually goes).
One wonders whether Bradbury had Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in mind when he wrote ‘The Fog Horn’, since the idea of a ‘monster’ shunned by the whole world but yearning for a ‘mate’, and for companionship, perhaps inevitably reminds us of the creature Victor Frankenstein creates and then neglects. The trope of the sea and men who know the sea also unites both texts.
But, in the last analysis, ‘The Fog Horn’ is a quintessential Ray Bradbury story in its ambivalent or even critical commentary on technology and the ways in which technology creates a gulf, rather than a ‘human’ connection, between people.