Exclusive Cover Reveal and Excerpt:
ALL THE WHITE SPACES by Ally Wilkes
We’re excited to reveal the cover and share an exclusive excerpt from All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes, Horrified’s own Book Reviews Editor!
A vivid ghost story exploring identity, gender and selfhood, set against the backdrop of the golden age of polar exploration, All the White Spaces is out in January 2022 from Titan Books.
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 maps of 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.
Ally Wilkes grew up in a succession of isolated—possibly haunted—country houses and boarding schools. After studying law at Oxford, she went on to spend eleven years as a criminal barrister. Ally now lives in Greenwich, London, with an anatomical human skeleton and far too many books about Polar exploration. You can follow her on Twitter @UnheimlichManvr.
I took a long, shivering breath, bracing myself against the windowsill.
Not the boys.
I tried not to think about my brothers lying under that stinking dirty foreign soil, the same soil that had stopped their hearts. They’d sent letters—at first I’d found them funny—about staying in dusty little French farmhouses, making friends with the locals. About long marches through blasted fields, and the terrible food in the trenches. They’d continued to joke affectionately: telling us it was all a game, and one they intended to win. But when Harry’s letters started arriving on my doorstep in their green envelopes, apologising for the presumption—he needed to tell someone—they had a very different tone.
Duty, and sacrifice. And horrors.
I turned slowly. Dark wallpaper, grey and burgundy, a stark contrast to my own room: chintz and lace and all the things I hated; all the things that had been chosen for me. My brothers’ bedroom was as neat and businesslike as a hospital ward. Blankets tucked in at perfect right angles, unfilled water carafes on the nightstand, sparkling in the pale sunlight like cut ice. Combs and Brilliantine lined up on the dressing table, programs for social dances tucked into the corners of the mirror. The long north wall was covered entirely with maps. Sea charts. Newspaper cuttings.
I wiped my mouth, and stared across at the perfect jagged ball of Antarctica. Its unfinished edges and tints of pale blue dominated the room entirely: for as long as I could remember, the South Pole had been the centre of everything. I could almost see fingerprints on the glass, ghostly traces, where fingers had slid their way down from the Weddell Sea. Of course Chloe would have wiped it clean by now.
“That’s where we’ll land,” Rufus had said, tapping a finger against his lips. “Vahsel Bay. Base camp. Then the sledging parties—off the maps and straight to the centre.”
“You’d better hope there’s nothing in the way,” Harry said from behind him—Harry’s allotted place—and Rufus raised an eyebrow.
“There won’t be. Old Australis knows what he’s doing.”
From the newspaper clippings, James “Australis” Randall stared down at me, handsome and commanding. He was broke—nearly bankrupt—but insisted he had to try, again and again, for the South Pole, despite the accident that had swooped him off the deck of his ship, crushed him in the freezing water against the hidden terrible faces of an iceberg, left him shivering and battling for his life on a floe in thirty degrees of frost. I wondered what it would be like to die from such intense cold. “I imagine it’d be rather like falling asleep,” Francis had replied, and squeezed my shoulder. “Not so bad.”
Randall’s accident had been in the Weddell Sea, that treacherous and deadly expanse of water, churning with pack ice, which blocked the route from the islands of South Georgia down to the Antarctic continent. When he’d returned, he’d tried the ice from another angle, where Liam Clarke had lost his fingers on the pitiless Great Ice Barrier—had refused point-blank to speak to the papers about it—saying that a man was entitled to leave the past behind.
I knew their stories so well.
And I could see traces of my brothers in the impatient choppy edges of each clipping—my mother’s dressmaking scissors, borrowed and blunted and never returned. I could see them in each pin jammed into the wallpaper—my mother’s violent disapproval, and Rufus’s smile behind her back. “Maybe we’ll take you with us,” he’d say to me, half serious, half joking, eyes fixed keenly on mine to observe my reaction. “Would you like that?”
“Don’t tease,” Francis would whisper in reply.
I’d loved him for it, and longed to follow them—but knew I never would. My war-hero brothers, off on their adventure to the great white continent: I could almost see them now. Invincible; laughing; triumphant. Leaving me behind again.
A half-sob. I buried my face in my hands, stretching my fingers wide, pressing into my flesh, trying to mould myself into someone different; someone who wasn’t about to cry. Someone more like my brothers.
More like the man I knew I should have been.
I couldn’t bear the thought of returning to my own room: cloying, stifling, as rigid as the tock-tock-tock of the metronome beating time during my endless piano lessons. The only thing in there which was mine—really mine—was shoved under the bed, hidden from Chloe and my mother as if it contained a hand grenade. But it was just a Crawford’s digestive biscuit tin; a nude, tautly muscled Grecian discus thrower was stamped on the front. The tin guarded my greatest treasures: the fat bundle of letters from Harry—serving as my lifeline to the Front—and a grey woollen armband with a crudely stitched crown. Someone had dropped it on the street outside the recruiting station, in the early days of the big Derby enlistment drive. The army posters had stared down at me as I’d picked it up, slipped it into my pocket. It was given in return for pledging to serve: I couldn’t believe anyone would treat something so precious so slightly.
Sometimes I’d try that armband on, see how it looked on me. I’d prop the biscuit tin in front of my mirror and stare at it. Then bury it back under my bed, with all its contents, shoving it out of sight.
I swallowed another sob. Not the boys.
A rustling. The wind came sneaking in like a thief, fluttering the curtains, toying with the newspaper clippings. The movement sent an unexpected shiver from the nape of my neck right down my spine. The fog made it dark for a December morning, so dark, and for a moment I could feel myself being watched by someone—something—just out of reach.
It was so quiet in the house I could have heard a hairpin drop.
I felt sure that if I removed my hands from my eyes, I would find someone else in the room. No—two someones, standing tall and straight with their backs to me. Hair neatly combed, uniforms pressed. Handsome faces still turned up towards Antarctica.
But Harry had been straightforward, hadn’t spared me the details. While the shrapnel had mostly spared their faces (mostly), it was clear no one would be calling them handsome anymore. I thought about the ragged tearing of barbed wire, razor sharp on their tender skin, the mud, the mud, a chaos of shouts and screams and falling rain, the agonies of the men, and in the sudden darkness of the morning—
I opened my fingers, looked around the room. Breathed out. No one was there.
I gulped. I would have done anything to see them again, and it yawned beneath me like a crevasse in that quiet room. It opened up and swallowed me whole.
I knew where I’d find them.
My shoulders shaking, I heaved the window wider. I hung half out of it, a strand of stray hair plastering itself to my face in the pale, wet air. The fog was so thick I could hardly see the street, let alone the harbour, but I could hear the tide in the distance. The long, quiet pull of the sea, breathing itself back and forth against the shore, regular and composed as a sleeping giant.
It seemed wrong—fatally wrong—for it to be so calm. There should have been a storm. Wind lashing at my hair. Waves rushing forwards like dark battalions. The room seemed to lurch around me, like a gale in southern waters, and I clung on.
My brothers had left me behind. I’d hug their memories to my chest; I’d fix them forever in that photograph in our hallway. Rufus, looking straight at the camera with his tiger smile; Francis, a little more reserved, standing to one side. The studio walls were creamy white, and the frame gilded, but they didn’t belong in it—no more than I belonged in this polite little floral world. They belonged outside, with a wider prospect, the sea stretching off into the distance. The endless washy horizon.
But now my brothers would never see Antarctica. Never know a clear day on the South Atlantic, or the jewelled ice of the floes. Their dreams had come to nothing, but I was the last Morgan sibling, and I knew where I’d find them.
I knew where I had to go.
The sea should have risen up. There should have been a tempest, a typhoon, a tidal wave. Crashing over the quay, breaking over me—making me anew.
Because I heard it then: the call of the South. I could hear my brothers.
Maybe we’ll take you with us.
Excerpted from All the White Spaces, copyright 2021 by Ally Wilkes
Text is not final, and subject to change before publication
All the White Spaces is out on 25th January 2022 from Titan Books, and you can pre-order a copy here
Author photo – Sophie Davidson
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