Sunday, May 25, 2014

Weird Fiction About Antarctica

Almost a decade before H.P. Lovecraft published his classic, At the Mountains of Madness (1936), Weird Tales published another story set in Antarctica, John Martin Leahy’s, In Amundsen’s Tent (1928).  Both stories and a number of others were inspired in part by various expeditions to this mysterious continent, beginning in the late 1890s.  These culminated in the famous effort led by Roald Amundsen, who was the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911.  Robert Scott’s team also reached the pole about a month later, but he and all of his men perished in the attempt.  Norway, Great Britain, and several other countries sent expeditions to the continent, with variable success and mortality rates. Then, as now, exploration of Antarctica was difficult and hazardous.

The last ‘unknown continent’ was a source of great speculation for several weird fiction writers in the 1920s and 1930s.  What was down there?  Besides Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, another famous story of this kind was John W. Campbell’s short novel Who Goes There? (1938). It was published in Astounding Science Fiction just a couple years after Lovecraft’s Antarctic adventure.  Who Goes There? was the basis for the film The Thing From Another World (1951), and its subsequent remakes in 1982 (The Thing) and 2011.  (The latest version was actually a “prequel”.)  Though difficult to substantiate, it is not implausible that the germ of an idea later developed by Lovecraft and Campbell has its origins in Leahy’s earlier story.

The mood and setting of Leahy’s In Amundsen’s Tent will remind readers strongly of The Thing, although the author provides very little graphic detail about what is discovered in the desolate camp.  In some respects, Leahy’s and Campbell’s stories are versions of the “derelict tale”, where an apparently abandoned camp stands in for an empty ship found at sea.  William Hope Hodgson has written a number of these; see for example his The Stone Ship (1914) or The Mystery of the Derelict (1914).  The basic motif is the discovery of an ominously vacant vessel.  Where are all the people?  What happened to them?  Unraveling the mystery nearly always includes the present party sharing the same fate as the original crew.   

In Leahy’s story, the revelation of an unsuspected horror, and the narrator’s fear of subsequent insanity suggests a Lovecraftian influence.  And there is a considerable amount of the histrionic text one finds in Lovecraft’s “purple prose”.  Here is an editorial comment about a passage in the journal of Robert Drumgold, of one of the doomed explorers:

“No man can ever know what the three explorers went through in their struggle to escape the doom from which there was no escape—a doom the mystery and horror of which perhaps surpass in gruesomeness what the  most dreadful gothic imagination ever conceived in its utterest abandonment to delirium and madness.”

The stories by Leahy and Campbell differ in some interesting ways from Lovecraft’s.  All three suggest that humanity is imperiled by an unknown entity lurking near the South Pole.   Unlike Lovecraft’s tale, the alien life form in the other stories may be a relatively recent arrival, its discovery an inadvertent consequence of scientific exploration.  Chance has kept the horror confined and frozen in Antarctica.  For the polar explorers, however, the threat is immediate and probably unavoidable; the entity is a predator of some kind, and just about everyone in the story is consumed by it. 

In Lovecraft’s tale the discovery is essentially archeological.   Strictly speaking, the creatures are not alien so much as Earth’s original occupants.   According to Leahy and Campbell, the threat comes from somewhere in outer space.  For Lovecraft, as is typical of many of his stories, the horror comes from knowledge of something that was unknown about the past, something that is still present and potentially devastating.

In Amundsen’s Tent, a three man expedition to Antarctica arrives at the deserted camp of an earlier trio of explorers.  In the tent is the journal of one Robert Drumgold, who with two other men perished mysteriously near the South Pole.  (Also in the tent is Mr. Drumgold’s head.) 

The rest of the story is told in passages from Drumgold’s journal.  His party had discovered yet another abandoned camp, that of none other than the famous Norwegian explorer, Amundsen.  The other men in Drumgold’s party in turn observe the contents of Amundsen’s tent, sticking their heads in between the front flaps. Inside is a malevolent creature so horrifying that it drives them both insane.  The creature then pursues the doomed chronicler of these events across the snow and ice.  He dutifully records his demise up to the very last possible moment.  (Shades of “—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye…”)

Some readers will be disappointed that Leahy was not more forthcoming with an explanation or with the visual details of his alien entity.  However, the story is effective in maintaining a mood of terror and awe in the face of an incomprehensible and totally “other” being.  Why should a creature from the depths of space resemble any life form we are familiar with?

John Martin Leahy (1886-1967) wrote and illustrated short stories for a number of pulp fiction magazines. He published one novel, Drome, in 1952.  Originally the novel had been serialized in Weird Tales beginning in 1927.  The story dealt with a subterranean civilization and weird ecology miles beneath the surface of Mount Rainier.

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As of this date, The R’lyeh Tribune is one year old!  This site will continue to provide discussion of early 20th century horror, science fiction and fantasy literature, as well as other topics on occasion.  Reader's comments and suggestions are always welcome.


  1. I'm convinced that Lovecraft was familiar with John Taine's "The Greatest Adventure" (1929), which has many correspondences with ATMOM, written in 1931 and published in Astounding Stories in 1936. Here is a good summary:

  2. I have not read anything by John Taine, (a.k.a. Eric Temple Bell), but judging from the synopsis, there are a lot of similarities between the two stories.

    It could be that both authors were inspired by recent explorations of the antarctic. Or it could be that Lovecraft was familiar with Taine's and Leahy's work, and developed their ideas further in his ATMOM.

    It is interesting, at least to me, to trace the development of science fiction and horror ideas across different authors and across time. I've wondered for example if Lovecraft's "The Hound" (1924) has a connection with M.R. James' "Casting the Runes" (1911).

    Thanks for your comments--I might check out Taine when I get a moment.

  3. More fiction on my website:
    (will be updated soon)

  4. Thanks "unknown" for this helpful listing. Interested readers will find a lot of material here going back to the very early twentieth century.


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