Fiction: ed. Robert M. Price: the Antarktos Cycle (Chaosium, 2006)
This is a comprehensive anthology of Antarctica and H.P. Lovecraft -related horror stories. It was of great help to me in that it saved me from finding these stories individually.
The centerpiece of the book, Lovecraft’s own At the Mountains of Madness, I read a long time ago; it was the first Antarctica story I ever came across. The amount of Antarctic detail is surprisingly high, and its clear that Lovecraft did his homework. He captures the essentials very well. Antarctica’s charm lies in the fact that its a contentless void, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror aligns neatly with that void.
The anthology opens with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous (in Antarctic literature) novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Its about the strange adventures of a youngster who ends up first in a pirate ship, then on an expedition ship, and finally in the clutches of treacherous, black-skinned savages. It posits that there is no Antarctic continent, being written before the continent’s existence was conclusively proven, and that there’s a gaping, steaming hole at the Pole, populated by godly beings. Not really my kind of stuff.
The quality veers into total crap by the second story, John Taine’s The Greatest Adventure. It’s an early 20th century story about an expedition to the Antarctic concerning the origins of life. The Antarctic scenery fails to be of any use, and its obvious the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The one upside is the lively if caricatured interaction between the characters, rare in genre fiction.
After At the Mountains of Madness comes Colin Wilson’s the Tomb of the Old Ones. I feel conflicted about it, because it was very well done, a description of an occult-themed project in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year in the Fifties. It brims with research, and when we get to Antarctica, the feeling of place is tangible.
Unfortunately, its mired in the quackeries of Charles Hapgood’s Piri Reis map, psychic powers, ESP and pre-historic civilizations. The story is fiction but its built on a foundation of real-life ufology. I don’t like fake science and I’ve never understood the appeal of this Ouija board stuff.
Next in line is Arthur C. Clarke’s parody At the Mountains of Murkiness, apparently included for curiosity value alone. This is the only piece of fiction I’ve ever read by Clarke, and I’ll take it on faith that the rest of his work is more sophisticated.
Another gem in the collection is John W. Campbell Jr’s classic short story, The Thing From Another World. It’s the basis for perhaps the best Antarctica movie of all time, John Carpenter’s the Thing, and stands on its own surprisingly well. It has a genuinely creepy atmosphere and I was surprised at how many things in the movie came from the short story. The first movie made on the basis of the story, the 1951 version produced by Howard Hawks, diverged considerably, and its clear that Carpenter made another movie based on the original story rather than remake the Fifties movie.
I could complain about the rampant xenophobia that forms the basis of the story, and certainly the character descriptions are a bit much at times: “…McReady was a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life and walked. Six feet four inches he stood … The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing … Age-resisting endurance of the metal spoke in the cragged heavy outlines of his face…” This is, obviously, the hero of the story, but most of the other characters are like this as well. It feels like its the Greek pantheon of gods moonlighting as scientists on Antarctica.
The anthology finishes with two short stories that have nothing to do with Antarctica, and I don’t know why they’re included here.
Maybe I should go back to reading Antarctic non-fiction. Or possibly find some Antarctic non-genre fiction.