Horror tales set in the North are not common but when you consider the beginning and ending of Frankenstein (1818), where Frankie is chasing his monster over the ice flows, then the tradition has its place. Edgar Allan Poe used the Antarctic to sort of finish The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) as did Samuel Taylor Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834). (More recently Dan Simmons used the setting to wonderful effect in The Terror (2007). Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a number of fantastic tales including science fiction, lost world and ghost stories. One of his earliest story is set in the Arctic, “The Captain of the ‘Polestar’ (Temple Bar Magazine, January 1883). The story headlined Doyle’s second story collection The Captain of the Polestar and Other Stories (1890).
The plot has a ship full of whalers upset at the actions of their captain. The men want to return for the herring season but Captain Craigie is determined to find more whales. This might seem ordinary enough but Craigie is drawn to dangerous work. The ship’s doctor who tells us the tale has heard that Craigie has a death wish. He, like the ship, seems haunted by a phantom. The second mate follows the shape out onto the ice to find it tall but inhuman. Later, when the captain insists on “seeing her” the doctor as a Man of Science does not believe. Eventually he hears and then sees the woman who haunts the captain, the same woman whose portrait hangs in the Captain’s cabin. When the Captain flees the ship, a search party finds his frozen body. Hovering above it the woman who has been calling to him from the grave.
The narrator of the tale is the ship’s doctor. Doyle was qualified to write such a story having been one himself, sailing on the Hope of Peterhead in 1880. He would sail a second time, along the African coast in 1881 aboard the SS Mayumba. His first journey would have informed him of life on a whaler, the world of ice of the Arctic and many other things that are evident in the tale.
I had to laugh when the doctor and the captain have a short conversation around Spiritualism (which would have been a logic thing to talk about with ghosts flitting about the ship.) Even in 1883, Doyle seems more champion than skeptic. He would conduct his own investigations into ghost haunting four years after this story. The rest of his life he would be a very public (and ridiculed) champion of Spiritualism. Whatever your thoughts on ghosts, Doyle does a great job of writing an Arctic ghost story filled with true-to-life detail. The spirit of Mary Shelley lives on…