November 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Polar Fiction

Recent news stories about the melting polar icecaps have made it clear that many of us will probably live to see a day when there is nothing at the North Pole but water. At the same time, huge chunks of ice are calving off Antarctica. These two beautiful wildernesses are literally melting away. This Small, But Perfectly Formed is dedicated to three works, far apart in time and quite unalike in every way but their settings—the polar ice.

Wilkie Collins: The Frozen Deep (1874): Anyone who has enjoyed The Woman in White or The Moonstone knows the wonder that is Wilkie Collins. As a sensation novelist, his fame sometimes eclipsed that of his close friend, Charles Dickens, and his irregular domestic life and opium addiction make for an interesting story in themselves. Sadly, the two aforementioned books are hundreds of pages too long to meet this column’s requirements. However, he also produced a wide variety of highly entertaining short stories and novellas, several of which have been recently republished by the marvellous Hesperus Press. The Frozen Deep started life as a play, but Collins soon rewrote it as prose. It’s a ripping yarn of full-blooded Victorian melodrama, driven by romantic frustration and jealousy. Most of the action takes place during an expedition to the Arctic that goes dramatically pear-shaped. Violence, betrayal and the possibility of murder spice things up no end. If you want to deprive Jessa of a few hard-earned pennies, you can ignore the Amazon link and get the full text online at www.blackmask.com/jrusk/wcollins/deep/deep_ndx.htm

H P Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness (1931): The vividly purple prose of Howard Phillips Lovecraft has a power to entertain and enthral out of all proportion to its actual literary qualities. He wrote like a thesaurus suffering an attack of hysterics in an abattoir, but is still thoroughly readable and enjoyable. This short novel demonstrates his strengths without concealing his weaknesses. It is the story of an expedition to the Antarctic that uncovers a vast hidden city founded by the weird and terrifying aliens at the centre of much of Lovecraft’s fiction. Aliens Vs Predator is the latest of many movies and stories to pinch this idea (and in the process it razed my last surviving hopes for the Alien franchise after Joss Wheedon crapped all over it with Alien Resurrection). These vast, horrific beings are still alive, waiting to reassert their control over the world humanity has populated. If this all sounds a bit daft, wait until you get to the bits with the giant, monstrous penguins. Despite all this, it’s genuinely scary. Cheap-arses should direct their browsers to www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/mountainsofmaddness.htm

Marie Darrieussecq, White (2005): Leaping forward another century, White is a tentative romance set in a near-future Antarctic base. A man and a woman, both on the run from the tragedies which have afflicted their real-world lives, come together at the end of the world. Darrieussecq is very good on the day-to-day details of polar life, with all the physics problems that extreme cold introduces into everyday activities. She even manages to succeed with the sort of narrative ploy that normally irritates most readers: a chorus of watching ghosts, the Antarctic dead, who observe and comment upon the actions, histories and lives of the protagonists. Despite this last detail, it is a realistic and involving story, subtle and wise.

Anyone interested in exploring the surprisingly vast subgenre of Antarctic fiction should have a look at ‘Tekeli-li’ (www.antarctic-circle.org/fauno.htm), a site whose name derives from Lovecraft’s demented masterpiece.