The Terror by Dan Simmons
Little, Brown & Co, 1st edition, 2007
Genre: horror, historical fiction, adventure
Synopsis & Review: From Columbus on, explorers searched North America for a route to the Orient, and as it became clear that the continent stretched for thousands of miles, they refocused their efforts on the North and the possibility of a Northwest Passage. In 1845 the Franklin Expedition set forth with two steam-powered ships–the first to explore the Arctic–Erebus and Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin and Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier respectively. Both men had been on previous expeditions into the Arctic and even Antarctic. They were provided with 126 men and state of the art preparations. And after whalers sited them as they steamed westward out of Baffin Bay in July of 1845, they were never seen again.
By October 1847, both ships are trapped in the pack ice off of King William Land. After wintering at Beechey island the first year, the immense amount of ice to the northwest belied the Open Polar Sea theory and sent the expedition southward, toward the Adelaide Peninsula in search of the Northwest Passage. But the ice grew ever thicker and winter came early, marooning Erebus and Terror. And in 1847, summer never came. As winter redoubles its efforts, the men of the expedition hunker down in the cold and the dark. Though originally supplied for three years, they are running out of coal, and many of their food stores have gone putrid. The ice is crushing the ships, slowly grinding them to pieces. Worst of all, something in the dark and ice is stalking them, killing the men one, two, or even several at a time.
The key to their salvation may be in Lady Silence, a mute Esquimeaux girl who could lead them to food or rescue. Or who might be a part of the predations upon the men. Captain Francis Crozier will do all he can to keep his men alive, even abandon his ship, but it may not be enough.
Men who read a lot have a more sensitive disposition, added Fowler. And if the poor bloke hadn’t read that stupid story by that American, he wouldn’t have suggested the different-colored compartments for the Carnivale–an idea we all thought was Wonderful at the time–and none of this would have happened.
I did not know what to say to this.
Maybe reading is a sort of curse is all I mean, concluded Fowler. Maybe it’s better for a man to stay inside his own mind.
Amen, I felt like saying, though I do not know why.
Though I was eager to read The Terror for RIP IV, having happened across a mention of it somewhere (I need to keep track of these things) last week, looked it up on Amazon, and requested it from the library all in the space of an hour, I was also a little apprehensive. I was a bit worried about the size of it; I read massive books fairly often, but I wasn’t sure how I’d like it, and trying to read a massive book in which you’re not interested is extremely painful. So I picked it up one night before bed and read the first eighty-five pages. The next night, I found that I’d read two hundred and fifty-seven pages, when I’d only meant to read a chapter. And I could hardly bear to put it down to sleep.
Though The Terror is a big fat tome, I found that the narrative begins hurtling along at about page 150, only dragging a bit when it gets metaphysical at about 686. My fears were unwarranted; I really, really, really enjoyed The Terror. I was almost reluctant to finish it, and now that I have, I’m a bit depressed.
Based on what facts we do have about the Franklin Expedition, and Simmons’ extensive research into polar exploration, nineteenth century maritime history, and the Inuit, The Terror makes a case for what might have happened to the expedition–with a little room for a possibly supernatural monster. Simmons opens the novel in October 1847, right in the middle of the monster’s predations, and it in subsequent chapters that we get the expedition’s history and background in bits and pieces. This is an effective technique for engrossing the reader by starting in the thick of the action and suspense. There are multiple POV’s throughout the book, mostly Captain Crozier, Dr Goodsir, Sir John, and Lt Irving, but with a few others and one-offs. Each chapter is headed by the date and the ships’ position (latitude and longitude), and the name of the person whose POV we’ll be reading. Combined with Simmons’ very clear and differing voices for each POV, this neatly delineates the patchwork of perspectives, keeping readers well on top of where in the timeline we are. The rapid shift in perspective also keeps the pacing fairly quick, as readers are eager to see who and what we’ll be dealing with next.
Simmons has obviously done his research, and there are few notable anachronisms–especially in the multiple POVs. He’s very skillfully created very real people, warts and all, with authentic-feeling nineteenth-century perspectives. Though there are numerous nautical references, Simmons uses them is ways that make it easy to pick up on the meanings through context; I never once felt the need to look anything up in the dictionary, but felt I had a clear understanding of what everything was. The many nautical details add to the suspense, because we know that part of the constant attention to duty is Crozier’s need to keep his men from dwelling on the desperate situation in which they’ve found themselves.
Above all, Simmons creates the right atmosphere, drawing readers into the unrelenting cold and darkness, the unending terrors of the Arctic and the men trapped on Erebus and Terror. The world of ice and cold is vividly depicted, and I found myself shivering along with the men, despite the warm September night. Simmons viscerally depicts the hellish levels of misery, sickness, starvation, and brutal cold that the men experience, the deprivation of all but a few tiny comforts, the claustrophobia and tension that comes from being trapped in a completely hostile environment. And on top of the miseries of a failing Arctic exploration, there is the monster terrorizing them. In a way, The Terror reminds me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the way that the tension and horror build and build relentlessly, though there is comparatively little on-screen gore. The shock and horror of victims caught in a situation for which there is no way out is painful to behold, and Simmons captures that masterfully.The fear felt by the men of the expedition is contagious; I got up to pee, and kept looking around the dark house, fearing that enormous white Thing on the ice.
Most of all, Simmons depicts the poignancy of the waste and obliviousness of early Arctic exploration and imperialism. Along with their (inadequate) supplies, the expedition drags along monogrammed silver and china, crystal, and other such pointless “necessities.” Rather than consider the methods marking the few successes of previous explorations and his own failures, Franklin fails to adapt or change, and this spells doom for the expeditions. The first successful traversing of the Northwest Passage was eventually done with a small crew, using methods of travel and survival learned from the Inuit; in contrast, Franklin aptly represents the cultural hubris, ethnocentrism, and obtuseness of colonialism. An early meeting between Franklin and the officers to decide the ships’ route provides a classic “NOOOOOOOO!” moment of frustration, as Franklin refuses to consider any alternative plans. Though readers know there is no chance that the expedition will make it home, such moments are almost unbearably distressing.
Despite the occasionally clunky metaphysics and mythology, the ending is highly satisfying. Simmons makes no effort to tie up every loose end, leaving readers to fill in many of the blanks (I, for one, had a hard time letting go of Des Voeux). The conclusion is a neat little twist, providing some oddly uplifting closure, but also leaving a measure of uncertainty that heightens the pathos of the entire effort. An enormously satisfying read. (My only quibble would be the Masque of the Red Death scene, which was a little much.)
Read also: “MS in a Bottle” by Edgar Allan Poe, At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft
Cover: The icy waste in which the ships were caught. In the foreground, almost mistaken for rocks, lie the bodies of several crewmen. Ooooh, I did not notice that upon first glance at all. Nice.
The men knew. Crozier knew what they knew. They knew it was the Devil out there on the ice, not some overgrown Arctic bear.
Captain Francis Crozier did not disagree with the men’s assessment–for all his pish-posh talk earlier that night over brandy with Captain Fitzjames–but he knew something that the men did not; namely that the Devil was trying to kill them up here in the Devil’s Kingdom was not just the white-furred thing killing and eating them one by one, but everything here–the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the uncanny lack of seals and whales and birds and walruses and land animals, the endless encroachment of the pack ice, the bergs that plowed their way through the solid white sea note even leaving a single ship’s length lee of open water behind them, the sudden white-earthquake up-eruption of pressure ridges, the dancing stars, the shoddily tinned cans of food now turned to poison, the summers that did not come, the leads that did not open–everything. The monster on the ice was just another manifestation of a Devil that wanted them dead. And that wanted them to suffer.
18 September – 21 September