“In Amundsen’s Tent”

This one I came to after reading The Last Place on Earth about Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole. I thought it interesting enough to nominate for discussion over at the Deep Ones group at LibraryThing where we are talking about it this week.

Review: “In Amundsen’s Tent”, John Martin Leahy, 1928.c0784b1ee007467637647527351434b41716b42

Leahy’s story is interesting for three reasons. First, its main action starts at aprecise place and time: the South Pole, Jan. 4, 1912. Second, it takes place in historical lacunae between Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole on Dec. 16, 1911 and Robert F. Scott’s arrival there on Jan. 17, 1912. Third, it is the first installment in a sort of trilogy of Antarctica terror written in the early 20th century. The later installments would be H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” and John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”

On its own merits, it’s a disappointingly vague story at times with some clumsy dialogue, but it has several themes and ideas that Lovecraft and Campbell would use much more effectively.

There is a horror in the Antarctic, a horror that men don’t want to speak of, a horror possibly from space.

The story starts out with the narrator, unnamed, talking about the discovery he and two other explorers made in the Antarctic: the severed head, and only his head, of Robert Drumgold, another explorer. It was found in a tent with Drumgold’s journal.

Drumgold was the member of the Sutherland expedition to the South Pole. Its three men arrived there on Jan. 4, 1912.

As in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, the story starts out with censorship. In Lovecraft’s story, we hear a plea to leave Antarctic exploration alone. The narrator and his comrades thought Drumgold went mad – though they couldn’t explain the severed head so free of the signs of dog bites. Not wanting to dishonor Drumgold and his two comrades, who were never found, they suppressed the story.

But there have been other expeditions to the Antarctic. Captain Livingstone’s saw strange things, things so strange he only confided, upon his return to civilization, to Darwin Frontenac. Then Livingstone died. Frontenac led another expedition to the Antarctic, but what Frontenac discovered has led the narrator to speak up about what he saw before he sets forth again into the Antarctic.

At latitude 87° 30’, “far from the route of either Amundsen or Scott”, he finds a tent, well-staked since it has survived the winds. Its slap iss open, but the entryway is partly blocked by boxes of provisions. Inside is Drumgold’s head. Neither an attack by dogs or cannibalism seems likely given there is plenty of food in those boxes.

Drumgold’s journal is found, and we hear of his life from January 3rd to January 13, 1912.

January 3rd:: A day of elation. The pole is only fifteen miles away. Tomorrow the Sutherland expedition will reach its goal.

But Drumgold’s thoughts are also turned in an eerie direction. He compares the polar waste to a fairyland. It may be a place where a “horrible death” awaits a man. But it may not be inhospitable to other forms of life. Quoting an actual American scientist, Alexander Winchell, Drumgold speculates that bodies as we know them, bodies requiring food and warmth, are not the only vehicles that can carry an intelligence:

Bodies are merely the load fitting of intelligence to particular modifications of universal matter and force.

Jan. 4th: The big day arrives. The men are rather disheartened to see the tent Amundsen’s expedition has left – which Leahy takes pains to describe accurately.

As the men approach the tent, the dogs begin to act strange.

Another oddity is that the bright sun dims – this is, after all, a time when the sun shines all day at the South Pole.  The sun seems to vanish in a strange overcast. But it’s not a storm. There is not “the slightest movement in the gloomy and weird atmosphere”.

The tent has a strange bulge in it. The party wonders if there are dead men inside, but mere dead men wouldn’t make the dogs behave so strangely. They are about to open the tent when a shaft of light, about three hundred feet wide but miles long pierces the gloom and falls on the men. “Just like a beam lying across a stage in a theater,” says one.

The leader of the expedition, Sutherland, puts his head in first. And screams. When he comes out he begs the others not to look “unless you are prepared to welcome madness, or worse.”

He’ll just say it is not dead men in the tent.

If ‘twas only that! Is this the South Pole? Is this the earth, or are we in a nightmare on some other planet.

He begs them not to look, but another member, Travers, does. He staggers away.

Both Travers and Sutherland beg Drumgold not to look into the tent.

Believe that we are insane. Believe that you are insane yourself. Believe anything you like. Only don’t look! . . . There are some things that a man should never know; there are some things that a man should never see; that horror there in Amundsen’s tent is – both!

replies Sutherland.

In the “weird gloom”, Drumgold points out that Amundsen may have left some records in the tent. For that matter, maybe Scott did too. Travers and Sutherland agree, but they won’t go in the tent again.

Then, continuing the somewhat aggravating vagueness of the tale, Sutherland and Travers elliptically discus what’s in the tent. Did it come alone? Is it dead? Can it even die? Maybe there were others, suggests Sutherland, that “went back to Venus or Mars or Sirius or Algol, or hell itself.” Whether the “others” stayed on Earth or went elsewhere, humans will encounter them again.

Travers suggests emptying his rifle into it – if the thing in the tent can die. Maybe it’s just hibernating. (Here you can see obvious precursors to Lovecraft’s and Campbell’s stories.)

Maybe it’s a ghost or a demon the men suggest.

Travers does go back, lifts the flaps, and fires several times. (And no reference to any damage is to be found in Scott’s journal when his expedition comes to the tent some weeks later.)

It is then a low throbbing is heard by all, “a sound no man ever had heard on this earth”.

The party, dogs and men, flees in panic. The sound stops but then starts again.

Drumgold looks back. In the strange gloom, he sees the tent moving, “jerked like some shapeless monster in the throes of death”.

Jan. 5th: The entry concludes that things look bad for the party. It is not just that they are pursued by a “sinister, nameless mystery”. It is the broken minds of Travers and Sutherland. The strange gloom is denser now, but the party encounters one of its navigation flags. They know where they are when they camp.

Here the narrator of the frame gives us a typical sentencey blatantly trying to affect us with emotions the vagueness of its presentation hasn’t really earned:

No man can ever know what the three explorers went through in their struggle to escape that 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.

Jan. 5th: The three men glimpse the shape out of the tent. They fear for “every man and woman and child on this earth”.

Jan 6th: The shape isn’t seen. But it’s felt overhead. The dogs are going crazy.

Jan. 7th: Two of the dogs disappear in the night. Travers is going mad.

Jan. 8th: Travers disappears in the night. He has left no tracks.

Jan. 9th: The horror from the tent is seen again. Maybe. Sutherland says it isn’t. It’s something worse.

Jan. 11th: Drumgold is alone. Sutherland disappeared in the fog the day before. There is no trace of him, his dogs, or his equipment. Drumgold feels himself watched. He has only an axe to defend himself.

Jan. 13th: The undescribed horror has been seen three times that day. The dogs are whining. The last line of Drumgold’s journal is:

Silence. Voices – I seem to hear voices. But that sound again. Coming nearer. At entrance now – now –

And there the story ends.

This was one of Lovecraft’s favorite Weird Tales stories, and it’s hard to imagine it didn’t influence him when, in 1931, he wrote “At the Mountains of Madness”. That story, along with Campbell’s, took the bare bones scaffolding of Leahy’s story and fleshed it out with described monsters waiting in the polar wastes at the bottom of the earth, monsters ancient and from outer space, monsters inimical to humanity.

Leahy supplied the outline and suggestions for greater works to come.


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