I enjoyed the shadowland feel to the story. It harks back to Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, and even Frankenstein, with a dash of Moby Dick. You also touch on the idea of illusion throughout the story, both with David’s relationships, and with the peculiarities of the crucible they’re in. Could you go into this aspect a little more?
Thank you! I’m delighted you picked up on the sense of otherworldliness. The polar ice has been used throughout literature as something of a liminal space, where the veils between this world and death, or the supernatural, have grown thin—it’s very memorably portrayed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Captain of the Polestar” as a place of supernatural encounters. I wanted to play with that a little by injecting a more cosmic horror, so the “thinness” is between our Earth and something lying far beyond. Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows has always been a favourite of mine, as has H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” And the Venture, of course, is a sort of spaceship: I absolutely love SF horror, and the expeditionary ships of this era offer an intriguing analogy for manned long-distance space travel. Similarly, what’s to be found in the deep ocean (or under the ice caps) is often as alien as anything we could imagine coming from the stars, and this illusion of difference—the thin boundary between what belongs to the “real world” and what doesn’t—is something I wanted to explore within the story.
On a different note, I also think that the past year has shown us how day-to-day things—the things we all take for granted—can suddenly be taken away, meaning that “normal life” might have been an illusion to begin with. Explorers often mention that the idea of “back home” rapidly takes on a mythic or storied quality, while their current circumstances become shockingly “normal” by comparison. While David’s home life is seen as literally golden-tinted in his memories, its associated certainties (his socioeconomic background, religion, heteronormativity) all prove to be illusory, capable only of being glimpsed vaguely in the distance. However, the world of the Venture (and, by extension, Sven and the whalers) is utterly tangible and “real”— with all its opportunities for boundary crossing, whether queerness, the chain of command, or the fragile nature of reality itself. It’s a dangerous place but a transformative one, and that’s where a lot of my stories are set.
You also have a keen interest in the area of polar expedition, which definitely helps give this story an incredible amount of energy. How did this interest come about, and how much does it influence your writing?
I’ve been fascinated by polar exploration ever since I was a very small child and found “Wilkesland” on the map (it’s on the coast of East Antarctica). I’m no relation to Charles Wilkes, the American naval officer who led that particular expedition, but it was enough to get my imagination fired up, and over the years I’ve become cheerfully obsessed with both Antarctic exploration (Scott, Shackleton, Mawson, the Belgica expedition) and Arctic exploration (the search for the Open Polar Sea or Northwest passage, and of course all the gruesome stories of survival cannibalism).
For me, one of the most fruitful themes to explore in horror is how extreme situations and life-or-death decisions bring out the best—or very worst—in human nature; polar literature offers such a rich vein of these stories. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote about Scott’s doomed expedition: “In civilisation men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment . . . not so down South.” I’m interested in what happens when the metaphorical chips are down.
Polar tales are also crammed full with the Gothic imagery of the sublime, in which the vast natural landscape takes on a sense of overwhelming—terrible but beautiful—agency. If you read Shackleton’s journals, for example, he’s full of ominous remarks that wouldn’t be out of place in the eerie supernatural fiction of Algernon Blackwood: “It is as though we were . . . bursting in on the birthplace of the clouds and the nesting-home of the four winds, and one has a feeling that we mortals are being watched with a jealous eye by the forces of nature.” I find this personification of the otherworldly landscape really creepy—it has a lot in common with the alluring-yet-destructive supernatural qualities of the vampire or fae—and I find that I keep coming back to it in my work. In “Where Things Fall from the Sky,” I’ve tried to channel some of that horrible beguilement into the obsessive qualities which the meteorite brings out in Playfair and his crew.
Finally, it’s just such a great setting—the tiny ship, tent, or huts, surrounded by miles and miles of howling, unmapped darkness. As someone once said, “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”—so you can expect me to be telling Gothic Polar horror stories for a while yet!
Your story also explores the locus of control with an ensemble cast (centered around David), which reminded me of The Thing and Moby Dick, with the meteorite and David and Sven’s relationship being especially significant. This sense of uncertainty is often what makes a great horror story. Was this a theme you considered as you wrote the story? Does it impact much of your other work?
I absolutely love an ensemble cast, and it’s something I think The Thing (or Dan Simmons’ The Terror) does beautifully—showing alliances forming and breaking down, suspicion, denial, and all the other interactions between humans in this pressure-cooker environment. I sometimes think you can tell a more interesting story through how characters react among themselves to the presence of the supernatural, rather than how those characters interact with the supernatural itself: as you’ve noted, the intrusion of something entirely otherworldly raises an intense uncertainty about the limits of the known universe and human agency.
As I wrote the story, I wanted to portray a range of reactions to this supernatural intrusion, particularly in the central relationship between David and Sven: there’s a lot of creeping horror for David in Sven’s calm acceptance of the meteorite and its consequences as a natural part of the liminal spaces of his Arctic whaling career. The degree to which you have control over your own fate is such a source of cosmic-level horror, but it’s also interesting from a polar exploration perspective—Francis Spufford notes in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination that the expectations placed on nineteenth century explorers were those often associated with the gendered “virtues” of Victorian womanhood: endurance, perseverance, resignation. By those standards, Sven’s grace under pressure is heroic, but still shudder-inducing for David—and hopefully the reader too.
The wider world of the story also contains many other factors which place the locus of control far from the men on that ship—from the harsh realities of the polar winter to the economic imperatives which have led David and Jones to try to carve out a niche in the mining industry so far from their Valleys home. And, speaking more broadly about uncertainty and control, I’m always interested in the idea of a rigid or hierarchical environment which gradually falls apart. As the characters are aboard a ship which might as well be a fragile life raft in that harsh environment, a lot of anxiety and unease in “Where Things Fall from the Sky” derives from the extent to which the ship’s captain has manifestly lost control. It’s an idea I find personally terrifying, and one to which I think we can all relate—that the person “in charge” is utterly incapable, and there’s no-one at the wheel. My novels are full of flawed hero or leader figures as a result.
The setting is very rich in “Where Things Fall from the Sky.” I’m guessing your interest helps a lot with this. The descriptions of setting, and also the details really brought the story to vivid life. For example, the ship’s hull was made of “Norwegian greenheart;” they were “spun out across the sea like sugar stirred in a china teacup.” Please tell us a little more about how you work with setting and detail in general, and specifically, this story.
Setting is always the first thing to come: when I’m developing a story—or a novel—I start with a setting and time period that fascinates me. The combination of those factors normally helps me to decide the tone of the work. Then I start thinking about an interesting character to put in that world, and the story grows up organically from there.
With “Where Things Fall from the Sky,” I knew I wanted to write something set on a whaling-ship trapped in the Arctic Sea ice (drawing on “Captain of the Polestar,” Pym, and others) and that led to a late 1800s time period and lent itself to a Gothic, dream-like feel to the narrative. I wanted it to be a “quiet” story while retaining a lot of supernatural menace, so the protagonist had to be someone who was a little on the sidelines, watching the horror unfold: David is respected and competent, and gradually becomes the de facto expedition leader once things fall apart, but most of the decision-making is utterly out of his hands. And as someone who’s both a queer writer and has a family history of Welsh valleys coal mining, I found that “Gracey” then jumped into my head nearly fully formed.
I love detail as a way to enrich a story’s world, but also to illustrate the assumptions and attitudes which underpin that world. I enjoyed putting hints of the 1880s’ rapacious capitalism into the story to underline Captain Playfair’s star-struck (ha) decision to bring back the meteorite and David’s more world-weary attitude to the excesses of exploitation. Similarly, as whaling was such a far-ranging industry, I wanted to give a sense of a wider geographical background, and the right details—like the china teacup or the Inuit people David has encountered on his travels—can hopefully bring a different “feel” to what’s otherwise a very confined story. (It’s important to note, though, that it takes place in a time of Empire, with all its associated dehumanising and proprietary attitudes towards other people and their lands.)
Thank you, Ally. I really enjoyed this story! Do you have any projects you’re currently working on? Can we hope to see something of yours in the near future?
I’m delighted to say that my debut novel will be released in the UK in January 2022 and in the US in March 2022! All the White Spaces is a spooky polar horror story about a young trans man stowing away on a Shackleton-esque expedition beset by disaster, supernatural forces, and the long shadow of the First World War. It’s my love letter to the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the beauty (and vainglory) of that very traditionally masculine world.
I’m also working on my second novel, What Passes Through, which is set in the 1860s and 1880s Arctic (of course)—it’s about guilt, cannibalism, and has hints of both Heart of Darkness and Event Horizon.
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