“That place was a stage, our light the wrathful fire of the Antarctic sun, ourselves the actors in a scene stranger than any ever beheld.” The latest volume of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird published as the sun sinks low on the horizon, Polar Horrors is a gathering of twelve tales which places their narrators in geographical and emotional extremes, Strange Tales from the World’s Ends selected by editor John Miller.
The first inclusion is both the longest and the oldest, The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon written by James Hogg and first published in 1837 but set in the late eighteenth century as the whaler Anne Forbes is wrecked in the grinding ice with only a sole survivor who takes precisely one page to consider whether cannibalism might be required should he not find other means of sustenance.
The fantastical elements largely confined to the abstract approach to the passage of time, almost as though he were hibernating, Gordon initially subsists entirely on a diet of alcohol from the ship’s stores then later from blubber and polar bear meat even as he befriends the cub whom he orphaned which he names Nancy.
Adrift on an island of ice caught in the ocean currents, drifting without sail or rudder for seven years, a travelogue of endurance and survival, Gordon’s recurring fear of cannibals perhaps says more of the author than the improbable reality of such a happenstance, and Hogg fills his lack of knowledge of the northern climes with a similarly overactive imagination.
More elegantly written and mercifully shorter, in 1868 Harriet Prescott Spofford overcame the gaps in her own understanding by presenting the Arctic wastes in a more abstract, almost mystical manner while searching for The Moonstone Mass, an endeavour doomed to disaster as are many of the ventures included, the poles coming to represent an insurmountable barrier which should not be crossed, as with The Captain of the Polestar described by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1883, a man of fierce temper but also “a seer and expounder of omens,” the crew becoming convinced the ship is cursed as he sees a figure on the ice which seems to call to them in a story of longing for the sea and lost love.
Like Conan Doyle, John Buchan establishes his narrator as a person of little imagination, reporting their experiences without embellishment, scarcely believing themselves had they not witnessed events, here the solo expedition of 1928 of an intrepid ornithologist in the face of extreme weather on the exposed island of Skule Skerry where the isolation and his own fears take hold of him.
The first story set entirely on land, from 1938 Idwal Jones depicts the bleak location of a Russian prison on the edge of the Arctic Circle where The Third Interne recounts a tale which might have been an influence on The X-Files’ I Want to Believe, followed by an unusual inclusion for the Tales of the Weird, a story from a writer still living, Iqsinaqtutalik Piqtuq: The Haunted Blizzard by Aviaq Johnston from 2019, where a child released early from school headis home in a snowstorm, fearful of the dark and the shadows, obviously contemporary but in keeping with the theme of Polar Horrors.
The second half dozen tales moving south, they start appropriately with Hamilton Drummond’s 1901 revelation of A Secret of the South Pole though the actual encounter takes place off the coast of Galapagos, the ghost ship having drifted from the icy cap with the dead crew still aboard and strangely preserved, the Antarctic not reached until the dread discovery revealed by John Martin Leahy in 1928.
An investigation into the fate of Robert Drumgold and his team of explorers who sought the south pole but did not return, In Amundsen’s Tent they found an unearthly nightmare so alien that even the horror of gazing upon it drove them nearly to insanity, the story presenting ideas which echo in the work of H P Lovecraft and John W Campbell’s 1938 story Who Goes There? which was filmed first as The Thing from Another World then by John Carpenter simply as The Thing.
While Leahy looks back and puts credence in superstition and unprovable suppositions, Sophie Wenzel Ellis looks forward with her character John Northwood, a scientist who becomes involved in a plan to accelerate evolution so humanity can become enlightened and liberated Creatures of the Light, a pulp science fiction thriller of 1930 which features a solar powered VTOL aircraft and considers gasoline “an obsolete source of power,” depicting an Antarctic haven unlike any other in the collection.
Moving back to more traditional horrors, Mordred Weir’s 1939 story brings a three-man expedition to the shelters left by a previous expedition where all but two died during the long winter, Bride of the Antarctic a short tale which progresses well but doesn’t land quite as deftly as it might, the slight twist handed to the reader rather than discovered, while a very different haunting is presented in Henry Kuttner’s 1943 Ghost, set at the Arctic Integration Station in 2030 and presenting haunting as a scientific phenomenon in the same way Nigel Kneale would with The Stone Tape, the electronic exorcism only making the problem worse.
Capping the collection is The Polar Vortex of Malcolm M Ferguson from 1946, again anticipating the future with its depiction of a wealthy man who in his pursuit of knowledge “tramples beauty and life under foot in his search for truth,” placing a student in an Antarctic astronomical observatory supposedly to conduct research but in fact the actual experiment being undertaken is something quite different, conclusively demonstrating that the tales inspired by the south pole are of more variety and more interesting than their northerly counterparts.
Polar Horrors is available now from the British Library