A Story Waiting Under the Ice

Simon Mockler's thriller The Dark that Doesn't Sleep comes out tomorrow. He's here today to talk about how a military base built beneath the ice of Greenland in the 1960s inspired him as an author and offered him the escape he needed during a difficult time.

In summer 2019 I read an article about Project Iceworm, an American military base built under the ice in Greenland in the 1960s. Let me rephrase that with a little more context: In summer 2019 my wife and I had just separated, and I’d moved into a house nearby that belonged to my mother-in-law to stay near the kids (the mother-in-law wasn’t there most of the time). And then I read an article about Project Iceworm. 

You might think I had bigger things on my mind than American Cold War engineering projects. I did, and also I didn’t. Because despite whatever else was going on, I couldn’t get the thought of the base under the ice out of my head. The scale of the ambition, the technical difficulties in building and running the place, the strategic thinking behind it. Never mind the life the soldiers, engineers and scientists would have had there, the isolation, the camaraderie, the arguments and the inevitable fights. 

I’d drop into that place when I needed an escape and each time I did I sensed a story, waiting for me under the ice. The last three books I’d written were children’s books. I love writing children’s books, but I wanted to do something different. Something darker. I had the perfect location. All I needed was a story that could draw on and amplify the tension that comes from living and working in such a difficult environment.

Research nowadays is almost embarrassingly easy. Turns out Project Iceworm has its own Wikipedia page. I found videos of the base being built on YouTube, a PR film created by the army. The footage was grainy, the voice-over filled with an easy-going 1960s pragmatism. It described how snow ploughs cut deep channels in the ice to make the tunnels, how the materials were dragged 140 miles over the snow from Thule, how much fuel was needed for the generators. Too much, so they decided to install the world’s first portable nuclear reactor. Of course they did.

They made it sound simple. It wasn’t. The mind boggles—governments nowadays struggle to fix a pothole. One of the films cut to a dog bounding about in the snow, playing with the soldiers.  

“Mukluk, a three month old Eskimo sled-dog went along as camp mascot,” the narrator tells us. “Strictly against regulations.”

He’s going in the book, that dog is going in the book, I thought, making notes. When the footage stopped, I could still see the soldiers, engineers and scientists. What would  happen to them when the arctic winter set in? What happens when the sun disappears for months at a time and the only thing keeping you going is the routine of keeping going?

Looking back over my notes, I see I jotted down Companionship. Isolation. Betrayal. 

My book would be about three people stranded there after the clean-up. A fire, two of them die, one survives. I want to know what happened. Dr Jack Miller is going to find out for me. He’s a World War II veteran who trained as a psychiatrist. I’ll follow him as he interviews the survivor. No scene will take place without him. You can see over his shoulder, but you can’t see any further. You can’t see what’s happening in the next room. I’m not letting the reader see more than he can see, so when the truth hits him it should hit you too, equally hard. 

I wrote through the winter. Long nights and solitude. I listened to the same song over and over again, ‘Tethered’ by Ben Crossland—an atmospheric piece of piano music that seemed to hold snow storms and darkness in the insistent, minor fall of its chords. 2019 turned into 2020. Lockdown came around. Home working, more time with my children, more time to write. I loved seeing this world come into being as the rest of the world shut down, teasing it out of the darkness, meeting my characters, building my story around them. Winter passed. So did spring, and then summer. And at the end of it I had a book, or at least a first draft of one, and it felt good. I decided to call it The Dark that Doesn’t Sleep because whatever was out there at the base, it was right at the edge of reason, the place where dreams and visions cross over into daylight. Where the thing you have to fear most is not the harshness of the arctic winter, but those closest to you.

About The Dark that Doesn’t Sleep by Simon Mockler:

Winter 1967.

An arctic storm traps three soldiers at a secret American military base located under the ice in Greenland. When the rescue team finally reaches them, two of the soldiers have died in what seems to be an accidental fire and the third, Private Connor Murphy, is left severely burned—with no memory of the previous seven days.

New York psychiatrist—and occasional CIA consultant—Jack Miller is tasked with uncovering Murphy’s memories. Carrying his own scars from World War II, Miller feels a kinship with the badly disfigured young soldier and patiently works to help him recall the events of that deadly storm.

However, the CIA wants Miller to do more than just uncover the missing memories. They also tell him that one of the three soldiers was a Soviet spy—and he needs to figure out who. As Miller delves into the personal background of the other two soldiers, and the history of the isolated base, he quickly realizes that nothing is as it seems. 

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