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Before the World Forgets Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson

The author of "Big Dead Place" cut his own life short, but left behind a gripping personal story.

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Johnson wasn’t really interested in the Antarctic’s extreme environment for its own sake. He mostly liked the way it made everything else so stark, like the ultimate white screen on which to project shadows and watch them dance. His thoughts on Antarctica’s defining feature, extreme cold, are explained in relation to PR: “For working outside in the wind and cold, shoveling, sawing, welding, whatever it is you do, The Program, in periodic memos and emails, will tell you that you’ve made a ‘sacrifice’ for ‘science.’ But the cold doesn’t consider your sacrifice. The cold doesn’t care about you one way or another. The cold is not trying to use you in a media spin. Nor is it trying to make an example of you. You do not blame it, begrudge it, or believe you can profit from an insincere alliance with it. Your experience with the cold is so personal that you hardly ever mention it.”

Persistent cold was part of why Antarctica is suited to meditative states of mind, though Johnson preferred the noise of technology and civilization to what he called “the tranquilizer of cosmic perspective.” One summer, shortly after he arrived, he sat down with a couple of guys about to rotate out. He realizes that their bearing is “calm and steady, thoughtful and deliberate,” while he possesses “the agitated enthusiasm of one who has had a break from the ice.”

The ice can still kill you. Johnson describes watching a group of adventuring skydivers whose chutes don’t open due to some weather-related malfunction, giving them the appearance of “three black dots in the distance that meet the horizon, as silent as falling fleas.” Their body bags “rattle like bags of crystals” when handled by the rescue workers, who later return to bury boots upside down in the snow near the disaster site. The jokes continued into the season, and Johnson reports that skydiver costumes were popular at the next Halloween party at McMurdo base.

Following the release of Big Dead Place, Johnson worked as a contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. His multiple stints in the latter were to be the subject of another book for Feral House. But he struggled to put the experience into words. The time in Afghanistan depressed him in a way that his years in Antarctica never did. “He had made a lot of Afghan friends, and the subject of their use by contractors and the occupation was very personal to him,” says Parfrey. Unable to write, Johnson struggled on and off with alcoholism. Although he checked into rehab and stopped drinking in 2012, he had acquired the arguably more dangerous habit of reading Thomas Ligotti, a reclusive horror writer and intellectual historian of nihilism who makes Stephen King read like a peppy master of inspirational Christian fiction. Ligotti’s essays are extended riffs on the idea that life is nothing but a brief, horrifying, meaningless, and futile exercise in existential terror management. If any book is fatal in combination with depression and possession of a loaded shotgun, it’s Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, a 250-page elaboration of his belief that “life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell.” The answer to this problem, concludes Ligotti, is a refusal by the species to reproduce, thus bringing an end to a nefarious process that will “last as long as a single cell remains palpitating in this cesspool of the solar system, this toilet of the galaxy.”

After years away from the ice, and neck-deep in Ligotti’s writings, Johnson reapplied to the U.S. Antarctic Program. Somehow, despite being the author of a blistering expose of the government project, he was hired. But the day before Johnson was to fly to Christchurch, he received a letter indicating that someone at Raytheon had discovered the Internet: “It has recently come to our attention that, writing as Nicholas Johnson, you are the author of Big Dead Place . It is our opinion that due to the nature and content of this book, you would not be a suitable candidate for employment under the Antarctic Support Contract.” 

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