Review: “All The White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes

This review first appeared in Horrified magazine in 2022.

Of the world’s ’empty spaces’, the polar regions have a long and distinguished place in horror fiction. From The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Edgar Allen Poe, 1838) to At The Mountains of Madness (HP Lovecraft, 1936), and from the TV drama The Terror (AMC, David Kajganich, 2018), to Michelle Paver’s excellent ghost story, Dark Matter (2010), the icy wastes of the Antarctic and Arctic have been used to – pardon the pun – chilling effect. It isn’t hard to see the attraction: the vast blankness of regions unexplored by Western eyes are a canvas on which any horror can be drawn, and can themselves provoke horror vacui: the terror of the void.

The superb, gripping debut novel by Ally Wilkes conjures terror from both the darkness of polar winter and the depthless white of snowscapes. All the White Spaces is told by Jo Morgan, whose elder brothers Rufus and Francis have recently been killed at the tail-end of the First World War. He wants to do what they couldn’t and embark on a polar adventure with their hero, the Shackleton-like James ‘Australis’ Randall: “…for as long as I could remember, the South Pole had been the centre of everything.” In order to do so, Jo, who was assigned female at birth, needs to become the person – Jonathan – that he has always wanted to be, but which the strictures of family and society would never allow. With his hair shorn, ‘Jonathan’ is the person he sees in the mirror and though “unrecognisable to my parents” seems “utterly familiar. As if I’d always known he was there.” And so begins Jonathan’s voyage, and there’s no doubting his determination: “I’d fight to the death to keep…the place I’d won…in that circle of men.” That place, which an upper-class male would take for granted, calls for a continual act of self-creation in order to prove that “we were on the same side. The same team.”

Jonathan’s brothers “had wanted [adventure] so passionately, in a way I had never been allowed to want anything,” and thus with a trans narrator, All the White Spaces exposes the sense of entitlement which underpinned the Age of Exploration: the expedition is structured by – and dependent on – hierarchies of class and gender.

With help from his brothers’ friend, Harry – who has his own demons, and his own reasons for taking part – Jonathan stows away on Randall’s ship, the Fortitude. The first third of the book is a tense, thrilling maritime adventure and hurtles along as they head to South Georgia – last chance to get off! – and then to the Weddell Sea, where everything starts to go horribly wrong. And does so quickly: the crew must abandon the ship in an episode that’s as shocking and brutal as it is sudden. Then the remnants are alone, isolated hundreds of miles from any living human being.

If I have to find a criticism – and it’s a very minor one indeed – it’s that in a crew of twenty-four not every member is fully realised: some of them are little more than Star Trek’s red shirts, doomed to be sacrificed when things get nasty. But over time the crew is whittled down to a core, and it’s then that grief, guilt and suspicion crash like icebergs against each other.

They find a camp belonging to a previous German expedition, and occupy it in order to shelter from the elements and the encroaching polar winter. And those elements are not simply indifferent – they are positively hostile:

“Whatever had happened the previous winter – whatever had happened to the Germans – was starting to happen again. Disappearances. Madess. Violence….it was as if something out there was trying to get our attention.”

In a place that’s so desolate, whatever is there, people have brought with them; and the emptier the terrain, the more intense the blizzard of emotions. Like the ocean world in Solaris (USSR, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), the environment reads the crew’s minds and shows things which may be meant to comfort them but don’t, because they are somehow ‘wrong’. The pace of the novel may drop once they reach Antarctica but that’s when the real intensity begins: the story becomes wonderfully claustrophobic and far creepier. As autumn blackens into polar night, Wilkes makes the Aurora Australis every bit as eerie as the willows in Algernon Blackwood’s eponymous tale, ‘The Willows’ (1907), and they share that sense of a thin veil, easily parted, through which unknowable malevolent forces may pass. “A faint sinister popping overhead told me the aurora had reached us.” As much as I love horror fiction, few stories actually send chills down my back, but that one did.

If I read a more absorbing horror novel this year I’ll be amazed: utterly engrossing and atmospheric, All the White Spaces is a triumph.

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