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Sun Feb 3, 2013, 05:56 AM

Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson


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

Just ten years ago, an entire continental literature was up for easy grabs. But who cared about planting a flag in the South Pole of letters?

The seventh continent, birthplace of the concept of wind-chill, has a colonial population not much bigger than its graveyard of Edwardian explorer-corpses, preserved like frozen peas along various expeditions’ competing paths to earth’s southernmost point. Never mind a native literary tradition. Antarctica lacks a native language. Since Robert Falcon Scott first trudged forth into the island’s interior in 1901, would-be Antarctic scribes have run up against their subject’s uncooperative nature, which curses chroniclers with Depression, madness, frostbite of the digits, and death.

It took a full century and the building of centrally heated infrastructure for the island at the bottom of the world to produce something like a minor classic. Its author was a young American writer and itinerant contract worker named Nicholas Johnson, whose memoir Big Dead Place upon publication superseded a century’s worth of self-serving ice-beard memoirs and press-junket hackery.

If you’ve never heard of Johnson or his book, neither have most people. He was a cult author with the Seattle indie press Feral House. His scattered pockets of admirers couldn’t depend on lit blogs for updates about the HBO Big Dead Place series-in-development ( produced by and possibly starring James Gandolfini) or a rumored sequel about Johnson’s recent contracting stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. On November 28, it took a while for word to spread that Johnson had stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and made wall art of his cerebellum at his home in West Seattle. His death passed unnoticed in America’s newspapers, including The New York Times, which in 2005 compared him to Joseph Heller, and the dailies of his native northwest, where he first attained self-publishing fame for his mid-90s ‘zine, Shark Fear, Shark Awareness. Known for its fanatical obsession with galeophobia and sloppy collage art, Shark Fear was a force in the Clinton-era copy shop underground that briefly revived an American tradition Ben Franklin knew as “pamphleteering.” It set the course for the blog that led to the book for which Johnson will be remembered.

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Reply Antarctica's First Great Author: The Fascinating Life and Death of Nick Johnson (Original post)
xchrom Feb 2013 OP
Octafish Feb 2013 #1

Response to xchrom (Original post)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 08:49 AM

1. What a loss...understood Raytheon and War Inc.

Profound, too. From the OP:

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.”

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