The Terror (book, Dan Simmons, 2006)
From SFX 153. This is one of the best books, of any kind, that I have ever read.
2007/ Dan Simmons/ Bantam Press
Wedding supernatural horror to one of the greatest tragedies of the age of exploration might be an odd concept for a novel, but it leads to but one recommendation: Go out and buy this book.
The Terror has at its heart the terrible fate of the Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to chart the Northwest passage in 1876, a journey that ended in starvation, disease, cannibalism and possibly murder after the squadron of two ships, The Erebus and The Terror, became locked into the arctic ice for two long years. Over 100 men perished on this ill-starred jaunt, there were no survivors, and at the time the fate of the missing men was the source of great speculation. To this day it remains one of the great heroic failures of British polar exploration, and the actual events that led to the failure of the venture remain shrouded in cold mystery.
Dan Simmons (an author now well past his 20th book) has taken this tale as his central thread, but has chosen to add a wide streak of Inuit mythology to the story, bringing it well into SFX’s purview.
Not only do the sailors and officers of the expedition have to struggle against hellish weather, dwindling supplies, mutiny, starvation and the relentless cold, but also a terrible creature that dwells in the ice and is taking the men one by one. At first it seems obvious that it is a particularly ferocious polar bear, but as time goes on, and more men are witness to the terrifying power of the beast, it becomes apparent that they are pitted against something far more powerful and, perhaps, unnatural…
The novel succeeds in many regards. Firstly, the historical setting is authentic, and the lives and behaviours of these men, based on actual expedition members in part, adds a level of realism that one does not often find in even the best-crafted historical fiction – this book is as diligently researched, and benefits greatly from it. Indeed, you actually learn a great deal about science in the mid 19th century. Secondly Simmons builds repetitive phrases about the environment in an almost musical manner, and before long you begin to actually feel cold, as if lost in the arctic yourself. Thirdly, the supernatural element is seamlessly incorporated. Something like this could easily have come across as a sub-Doug McClure adventure, at best, you might expect a Victorian The Thing, but what you get is so much more, with the beast in the ice not only adding to the tension in a direct sense, but serving very well as a metaphor for the brutality of nature, a brutality that also lurks in the more atavistic corners of the human psyche and is soon revealed by such dire straits as the men find themselves in.
It’s not perfect – there are moments of conversation when the characters discussing an issue could almost be called Seaman Exposition and First Mate McGuffin, but this is a small issue in an otherwise fantastic achievement. It is nothing other than excellent. Gripping, well-observed, and at time genuinely frightening. Absolutely first-rate.
Did you know?
One of the contributory factors that led to the loss of the real expedition was the failure of the officers to learn from the local Inuit. They also did heroically foolish things, like hauling unnecessary equipment after them when they abandoned ship.