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Good Reads  Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel

Madhouse at the End of the Earth The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night

By: Julian Sancton(Author)
368 pages
Publisher: WH Allen
Madhouse at the End of the Earth
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About this book

The harrowing, survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly wrong, with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter.

August 1897: The Belgica set sail, eager to become the first scientific expedition to reach the white wilderness of the South Pole. But the ship soon became stuck fast in the ice of the Bellinghausen sea, condemning the ship's crew to overwintering in Antarctica and months of endless polar night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness, their minds ravaged by the sound of dozens of rats teeming in the hold, they descended into madness.

In this epic tale, Julian Sancton unfolds a story of adventure gone horribly awry. As the crew teetered on the brink, the Captain increasingly relied on two young officers whose friendship had blossomed in captivity – Dr. Frederick Cook, the wild American whose later infamy would overshadow his brilliance on the Belgica; and the ship's first mate, soon-to-be legendary Roald Amundsen, who later raced Captain Scott to the South Pole. Together, Cook and Amundsen would plan a last-ditch, desperate escape from the ice-one that would either etch their names into history or doom them to a terrible fate in the frozen ocean.

Drawing on first-hand crew diaries and journals, and exclusive access to the ship's logbook, the result is equal parts maritime thriller and gothic horror. This is an unforgettable journey into the deep.

Customer Reviews


Julian Sancton read History at Harvard and is a senior features editor at Departures magazine, where he writes about culture and travel. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker, Wired, and Playboy, among other publications. He grew up in Paris and New York and has reported from every continent, including Antarctica, which he first visited while researching this book.

By: Julian Sancton(Author)
368 pages
Publisher: WH Allen
Media reviews

"A "grade-A classic" that's feverishly compelling [...] thrillingly disastrous [...] this story has everything [...] It is a model of how to write a polar expedition history"

– James McConnachie, Sunday Times

"Exquisitely researched and deeply engrossing"
New York Times

"There's always a danger of writers becoming icebound by the thoroughness of their research. In Julian Sancton's case it has been absorbed into a thrilling and perfectly judged account of what is in some ways a deep-frozen prequel to Apollo 13 and the notion of successful failure"
– Geoff Dyer

"An epic of survival. A mixture of chaos and great courage; part Monty Python sketch, part real-life heroics"
– Michael Palin

"Polar exploration was the space travel of its day. Julian Sancton reminds us why, while sending us on an extraordinary expedition, one that left its crew in the deadly grip of the Antarctic pack for more than a year. He sets us down directly amid the polychromatic ice; when a man goes overboard, so do we. Madhouse at the End of the Earth has it all: Idealism, ingenuity, ambition, explosives, flimflammery, a colourful cast, a blank map, a three-month-long night, penguins (and medicinal penguin meat). A riveting tale, splendidly told."
– Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Witches and Cleopatra

"As harrowing an account of a voyage of exploration as I've read in years. Artfully constructed, written with evenly-paced poise and with a kind of dread-filled assurance, it grips from first sentence to last"
– Lawrence Osborne, international bestselling author of The Forgiven

"A generation before Shackleton's Endurance, an adventure every bit as bold and dreadful took place at the bottom of the world, led by a band of unimaginably colorful and resolute explorers. In Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton has deftly rescued this forgotten saga from the deepfreeze – and in the process has given us the next great contribution to polar literature. A wild tale, so well told and immersively researched"
– Hampton Sides, New York Times bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice

"A brilliant, vivid piece of writing that should be read by all who care about heroism, courage, ingenuity and endurance [...] it is adventure to the max, and peopled by wonderful characters. As soon as you finish, you want to read it again"
– Roger Alton, Daily Mail

"The story of the Belgica has been told before, but never so brilliantly. Madhouse at the End of the Earth belongs at the heights of polar literature"
The Times

"Considering that much of Madhouse at the End of the Earth is about moribundity, Sancton does well to make each page exciting – "murder, suicide, starvation, insanity, icy death and all the acts of the devil"
– Roger Lewis, Telegraph *****

"Sancton has given us a riveting true-life horror story, the tale of an ambitious crew of sailors who chased glory but wound up trapped in an icy hellscape with slim chance of survival. Madhouse is that rare non-fiction gem – an obscure but important history transformed by deep research and note-perfect storytelling into a classic thriller. Reading this book is as much an adventure as the very story it tells"
– Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Steve Jobs and Leonardo Da Vinci

"With meticulous research and a novelist's keen eye, Sancton has penned one of the most enthralling – and harrowing – adventure stories in years. But more than an adventure story, Madhouse is a remarkable chronicle of the outer limits of human endurance, of the strengths both physical and mental that enabled a small band of explorers, trapped in Antarctic ice for over a year, to survive against the odds while others did not. An unforgettable tale brilliantly told"
– Scott Anderson, bestselling author of Lawrence in Arabia

"At once a riveting survival tale and terrifying psychological thriller, Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a mesmerizing, unputdownable read. Julian Sancton has crafted an epic of Antarctic exploration that deserves a place beside Alfred Lansing's immortal classic Endurance"
– Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea and Valiant Ambition

"[A] riveting history of exploration, ingenuity, and survival [...] With a cast of intriguing characters and drama galore, this history reads like fiction and will thrill fans of Endurance and In the Kingdom of Ice. A rousing, suspenseful adventure tale"
Kirkus Reviews

"Sancton debuts with a riveting account [...] a well-researched and enthralling portrait of endurance and escape"
Publishers Weekly

"Sancton's mix of reportage and novelistic reconstruction keeps the story rolling, even in the frozen doldrums of months-long polar night. The savage beauty of the antarctic landscape grips. The writing is exacting, compelling and compassionate. For all the farce, the facts and human cost of the expedition hit home and the shadows cast on the survivors are long and lasting"
The Literary Review

"The energy of the narrative never flags [...] Mr. Sancton has produced a thriller, and a welcome addition to the polar shelves"
– Sara Wheeler, Wall Street Journal

"A splendid, beautifully written book"
– Owen Matthews, The Spectator

"This is an epic of exploration, a brilliantly vivid piece of writing told by a natural storyteller"
Daily Mail

"Julian Sancton's impressive research and incisive writing style ensures that this lockdown story grips like the pack ice"
Yachting Monthly

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