Brrr! But why are we so fascinated by the lure of the cold, indifferent universe? And what does it say about us that we are so willing to embrace it? And why is subzero horror fiction so popular?
Our family's trip to Antarctica took place in 2002. It was the holiday of a lifetime. The towering spires of the mountains in the Antarctic Peninsula and the biting cold went right down into my soul. I loved it.
And I'm not alone in that regard. We've been drawn to the lure of the icy wastes for far longer than we've been able to reach it ourselves. No doubt that was part of its allure in both fact and fiction.
When Dr Frankenstein chased down his monstrous creation in the desolate Arctic landscape, Victorian readers were enthralled. This was the ultimate subzero horror fiction in the northern hemisphere. And the real-life dramatic developments of polar exploration fascinated magazine and newspaper readers until finally both poles were reached.
Horror wasn't slow in falling in love with polar travel at the other end of the world either. It wasn't long before subzero horror fiction in the Antarctic took off as well. Edgar Allan Poe's short story M/S Found In A Bottle details a ship's voyage towards the southern pole:
"All in the immediate vicinity of the ship, is the blackness of the eternal night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe."
The narrator has sailed thousands of miles to get there. Just as in HP Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of Madness, man has to journey to the frozen wastes. But what if the icy cold comes to you?
We don't have to travel to the polar regions to be in danger! There are several examples I can think of in subzero horror fiction where the grip of the freezing cold reaches out to claim us in our usual environs. Clearly nowhere is safe.
In HP Lovecraft's Cool Air, the author specifically reminds the reader that horror can take place anywhere, including in the broad of day:
"It is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the clangour of the metropolis."
Setting aside the horror instilled by his landlady's decor (presumably based upon Lovecraft's personal experience of living in New York), the narrator has had a heart attack one sweltering day. Dr Munoz comes to attend him.
The cold that accompanies the doctor is contained with his own body. The narrator is soon won over to his theories, which link good health to a strict regimen of cold. But as the doctor's health fails, the narrator becomes alarmed by him:
"The horror of horrors came with stupefying suddenness. One night about eleven the pump by the refrigerating machine broke down, so that with three hours the process of ammonia cooling became impossible."
HP Lovecraft's narrator is frightened by the absence of intense cold. However, our fear of cold more often stems from its documented health benefits being taken to extremes rather than in it being denied to us.
Storing our bodies at sufficiently low temperatures through cryogenics might make coming back from the dead possible, but would any of us really want that?
In Ramsey Campbell's novel Midnight Sun, a love of the cold, and an overwhelming tendency to be drawn towards it, have been with Ben Sterling his whole life. It's an odd sort of inheritance for a young lad.
His grandfather travelled north to the polar regions to research First Nation legends of a ritual designed to keep the freezing cold at bay by keeping the Midnight Sun in the sky all winter. Edward Sterling's last book is called Of The Midnight Sun. He is found half dead of cold in the arctic wastes and is brought home to Stargrave in northern England to die.
As an adult, Ben returns to Stargrave House with his family. It isn't long before the cold is reaching out to him, drawing him in and luring him away from his wife and children:
"The pattern was around him on the grass, a many-armed star of frost as wide as the glade. The outlines of the slender arms were awesomely intricate and yet symmetrical in every detail. He turned dizzily, feeling in danger of losing his balance, and saw that the star wasn't quite symmetrical: it lacked the three arms which would have pointed to the oaks he had failed to approach. The star showed where he had walked, as if a vast cold presence had paced behind him."
I think that the coldness of the universe is in part an inversion of the warmth of our community, family and friends. We fear its indifference and distance.
The callousness of it might engulf social institutions that we rely upon for our basic security and sense of psychological wellbeing. That's a very frightening thought!
For the natural recluse, which includes many a horror writer, the cold stretching out is positively welcome, however. Sometimes the cold is just trying to help. In Thomas Ligotti's short story Premature Communication, the narrator is a young boy who hears a voice on a cold winter morning warning him that the ice is breaking up on the river. His parents hospitalise him rather than listen to his warning.
In Thomas Ligotti's A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing the narrator recalls a childhood visit by Doctor Zirk who imparts to him secrets of the cold inanity of our existence. The narrator has already become obsessed by the iciness of the universe and sees it as a source of deliverance and wishes to embrace it further:
"I watched in awful devotion as dull winter days were succeeded by blinding winter nights. I remained ever awake to the possibility, as my young mind conceived it, of an icy transcendence."
Thomas Ligotti is an extremely private individual, and I wonder if this informs his enthusiasm for the distant cold outer reaches of the universe.
If being alone and loving it is the source of affinity for a cold winter's day then that explains much in my life. I always put that down to being born in December! One thing's for certain, the delight we take in tales of intense cold in horror is unlikely to melt away any time soon!
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