Madhouse at the End of the Earth tells the story of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897, the first enterprise to overwinter in the Antarctic (this was not part of the plan; not all of the crew returned). Today, NASA believes the expedition to be the closest men have ever come to the extreme conditions of Mars but, for all its doomy portent, the book reads like a thriller and zips along like a Weddell seal. Sancton’s research is excellent: the ship’s logs and the letters and diaries of those onboard are sewn deftly into the story, enriching without distracting. Also, delightfully, the author takes great pleasure in ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. Here are four zingers from early on:
Then, too, he had been a prisoner, held captive not by bars and locks but by an infinite expanse of ice. Then, too, he had heard shrieks in the night.
‘I kept seeing Wiencke,’ Lecointe wrote, ‘his lifeless eyes wide open, washed away forever.’
The Belgica was stuck fast, this time for