“My fingers are blackened beneath these gloves. My feet are no longer my own. Why, in this world of whiteness, does flesh turn to the reverse?”
–From ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ by John Shire
It’s been a few years since we had much in the way of snow down here in the South East of England, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing when you look at the role it plays in horror fiction. From Frankenstein to The Shining, Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, some of the greatest authors in the genre have turned to winter landscapes for the sense of isolation and dread inspired by cold wastes. Three out of these four examples, it should be noted, use polar exploration as the pretext for this. In the case of Mary Shelley’s founding text of science fiction and horror, this is part of a grand, over-arching framing device, which nevertheless builds to a climax taking its two antagonists to this liminal place of ultimate extremity, a somewhat more epic place of confrontation than the windmill or laboratory acid bath of the scaled-down Universal (1931) and Hammer (1957) versions. But a more recent example of this type of gothic narrative, combining supernatural and survival horror, is Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (2010).
Other, shorter, more recent, winter’s tales bring the terror of the cold closer to home. The first of Stephen Jones’s Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, co-edited by Ramsey Campbell, features two (to my mind) all-time classics of horror fiction in this setting: the quiet apocalypse of Donald R. Burleson’s ‘Snow Cancellations’ and the supernatural vengeance of Stephen Gallagher’s ‘The Horn’, both unforgettable in different ways. Gallagher’s story became an equally unforgettable adaptation on BBC Radio 4’s marvellous Fear on Four, presided over by the melliflous yet menacing tones of Edward De Souza’s ‘Man in Black’.
Another wonderfully creepy story from that series is ‘The Snowman Killing’ by J.C.W. Brook, pointing to the question of what lies beneath such an effigy. The grisly answer the story offers recurs in Jo Nesbo’s crime novel The Snowman and Alison Littlewood’s excellent horror thriller A Cold Season.
Thana Niveau’s ‘And May All Your Christmases…’, originally available in The Thirteen Ghosts of Christmas (Spectral Press, 2012), and currently available to read in her 2018 collection Octoberland (PS Publishing), has more in common with ‘Snow Cancellations’, an eerie exploration of the malevolence or merely cold indifference of nature as represented by endless snowfall.
As such tales show, the snow can provide not just a back-drop for cosmic terror but its locus, a meteorological equivalent of Algernon Blackwood’s eponymous willows, cutting us off from the rest of humanity without reason or mercy. As John Shire’s above-cited story suggests, the frozen wastes of Antarctica can supply both setting for and source of horror and awe. ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ is one of what might be a trilogy of stories revisiting Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, the other two being ‘What Danforth Saw (Or “A Final Plunge”)’ and ‘Irrevelations’, from his 2013 Invocations Press collection of ‘stories after Lovecraft’ Their Hand Is At Your Throats.
If ‘Iceberg’ is a kind of prequel to Lovecraft’s novella, with Victorian explorers encountering the five-lobed heads and barrel-shaped bodies of the creatures from it and discovering the true nature of the earth. ‘What Danforth Saw’ takes up the story after the disastrous expedition recounted by Lovecraft in what Shire’s tale suggests is a factual account in one of a pair of writings that cleverly blur the line between fiction and creative non-fiction, the other being ‘Lovecraft, Lacan and the Lurking Fear’. In ‘Irrevelations’, Shire returns to out-and-out fiction, with a futuristic tale of occult espionage, psy-ops and remote viewing, set in an almost James Bond-esque underground base beneath the Mountains of Madness. If you like your horror both cosmic and cerebral, you would do well to seek out this intriguing collection. I bought mine direct from the author, who runs The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton. You can either get a copy that way, or through Amazon.
As a fellow Brightonian, I’ve written some frozen fear of my own of course, though the snow in my two novelettes ‘How I Learned the Truth About Krampus‘ and ‘In the Hold, It Waits’ (anthologised in A Book of the Sea from Egaeus Press) is more in the way of setting than subject-matter.