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Book: “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes
Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, March 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished hardcover from the publisher.
Book Description: Something deadly and mysterious stalks the members of an isolated polar expedition in this haunting and spellbinding historical horror novel, perfect for fans of Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Alma Katsu’s The Hunger.
In the wake of the First World War, Jonathan Morgan stows away on an Antarctic expedition, determined to find his rightful place in the world of men. Aboard the expeditionary ship of his hero, the world-famous explorer James “Australis” Randall, Jonathan may live as his true self—and true gender—and have the adventures he has always been denied. But not all is smooth sailing: the war casts its long shadow over them all, and grief, guilt, and mistrust skulk among the explorers.
When disaster strikes in Antarctica’s frozen Weddell Sea, the men must take to the land and overwinter somewhere which immediately seems both eerie and wrong; a place not marked on any of their part-drawn mapsof the vast white continent. Now completely isolated, Randall’s expedition has no ability to contact the outside world. And no one is coming to rescue them. In the freezing darkness of the Polar night, where the aurora creeps across the sky, something terrible has been waiting to lure them out into its deadly landscape…
As the harsh Antarctic winter descends, this supernatural force will prey on their deepest desires and deepest fears to pick them off one by one. It is up to Jonathan to overcome his own ghosts before he and the expedition are utterly destroyed.
Review: Thank you to Atria Books for sending me a hardcover copy of this book!
This past Halloween season I invited my Terror Tuesday horror movie friends over for a backyard movie night and bonfire. In the group text we were debating on possible movies to watch, and one title we decided on was “The Thing”. You know, the 1980s Sci-Fi horror movie by John Carpenter in which an Antarctic research team is trapped in their research station with an alien that can shapeshift and picks them off one by one. It’s a really fun movie, and it’s one that I kept thinking about as I read “All the White Spaces” by Ally Wilkes. I’m sure that’s by design (given that a couple characters share names with characters in that movie), and the similarities are there, and to make it all the more method I was reading it in Duluth on a night where the windchill was in the negative twenties. Talk about perfect.
But as I was reading it, “Thing” vibes or not, I realized that Wilkes was doing something unique with a story theme we’ve seen before, because our main character, Jonathan Morgan, is a trans man during the World War I era. And I’m going to start with characters and time period because of that uniqueness. I liked the character set up of Jonathan as a trans man, and how he has found himself on an Arctic exploration ship after the death of his older brothers Rufus and Francis in the War. It gives him the perfect motivation, as he felt left behind when they went to war and he had to stay behind because his family and society did not understand his gender. I thought that Wilkes did a really good job of portraying a realistic and in the time trans man who has immense guilt over his older brothers death. His grief makes him want to connect to them in ways that he never did when they were alive, and decides stowing away on an expedition team that they had always been interested in is the way to do it. I also thought that Jonathan’s class privilege still being a blinding factor as well as his general naïveté due to youth and said privilege made him well rounded and complex (and at times very frustrating, which I imagine was the point). His interactions with the other men on the ship as a trans man in hiding was at times tense because of the secret we know Jonathan is keeping, as is the general idea of Antarctic travel during a time when said exploration is dangerous and enthralling. We get to see a little bit into the motivations of the other men, though it adds a bit to the mystery as well. I especially liked the character of Tarlington, an ostracized member of the team due to his scientific role as well as his conscientious objector status in the wake of the First World War. The tidbits of the time period, both in societal themes and characterization, felt well researched.
And Wilkes really does find the horror in both the supernatural as well as the very real dangers of Antarctic exploration during this time period. I can’t even imagine going on this kind of voyage back at the beginning of the 20th Century (I can barely imagine doing this kind of thing right now!), and Wilkes takes the ‘everything that can go wrong WILL go wrong’ approach. Speaking to the realistic stuff first, as that was the stuff that was the scariest for me, there is a glut to pick from. We have the paranoia of being in an isolated place. We have eternal darkness for months on end. We have the VERY real dangers of the cold and what it can do to the body (this was the worst for me; there was one scene in particular that was so gruesome and disturbing I actually put the book down for a bit so I could just decompress). And we have the very understandable fear of a trans person who is hiding his identity from a number of strangers who are becoming more and more unpredictable in dangerous circumstances. It makes for VERY tense reading.
And yes, there is supernatural stuff going on as well, and Wilkes makes it VERY unsettling and creepy, as well as somewhat metaphorical. Which is always good. As Jonathan et al are seeing shadows and beings and other things out of the corners of their eyes or on the horizon, we get to play with potential unreliable narrators (albeit in the third person) who may just be going insane due to their circumstances. But the descriptions of the figures as they slowly make themselves known, oof! I love the weird ambiguity these kinds of reveals can tread on for a good chunk of the narrative at hand, and just thinking of this kind of thing in THIS setting? AUGH!
“All the White Spaces” is some solid and scary arctic horror with a really well done trans perspective that I haven’t seen much of in the horror genre. It feels like that’s changing, which is great. I cannot wait to see what Ally Wilkes brings us next, because this was SO creepy. And it made me so glad that Spring is almost here.
Rating 8: Dark, disturbing, and unique with its perspective, “All the White Spaces” is a must for those who are interested in expeditions of the past, body horror, and “The Thing”.
“All the White Spaces” is included on the Goodreads lists “Transgender Horror”, and “2022 Horror Novels Written by Women and Non-Binary Femmes”.