Published: 2007 by Bantam
My copy: Bought in paperback
Memorable quote: “The blue flame in his chest had burrowed towards his heart like some alien entity, lingered like a disease, and centered in him as an almost unwanted core of conviction that he would do whatever he had to do to survive. Anything.”
Rarely do I reread novels; I’m generally too conscious of the forever growing list of titles out there that I’ve yet to tackle for the first time. But I made an exception for this, Dan Simmons’ hefty historical horror novel based on the ill-fated Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. I first read The Terror in 2010 – back in those dim and distant days before I was obsessed with polar exploration – at the time I knew nothing about John Franklin, Francis Crozier or their quest for that holy grail of Arctic shipping short-cuts but I remember being utterly consumed by this book, to the level of getting up early just to read it before work and then almost being late in because I simply couldn’t put it down. Since then I’ve come to appreciate some of Simmons’ other novels including his Hyperion books and the wonderfully overwrought Drood. But I’ve often wondered since whether my initial, rapturous response to The Terror was entirely due to the quality of the novel, or if it was rather an early symptom of quite how tightly and how enduringly the pack ice was about to grip the good ship Roxanne. There was only one way to find out…
The answer is a little from column A, a little from column B. Even second time around this book is a captivating prospect. Knowing so much more about the subject matter also gave me an enhanced appreciation of just how thoroughly Simmons has done his research. He may fill in the gaps in the known story of the expedition with dark imagination but the scenes of above and below deck – locked in the ice upon the ships, Erebus and Terror, that became both sanctuary and prison – are crammed to bursting with authentic sights, sounds and smells. Simmons brings vividly to life many of the very different characters on the voyage: from the cooks, cabin boys, ice-masters and marines to Franklin: pretentious, aristocratic and secretly lacking confidence; and Crozier the likeable, practical, alcoholic who is Simmons’ protagonist.
But Simmons also brings an element of fear above and beyond the already pretty extreme horror of the cold, darkness, starvation and encroaching madness experienced by the trapped crews. In this imagining of their story, the men also face another ‘Terror,’ a huge, and terrifyingly intelligent creature on the ice torments them, brutally picking off crew members one by one. The monster could so easily have been a gimmick, or outstayed its welcome (my frequent gripe with horror as a genre is that the scariness is too often stretched out so long it loses impact). But The Terror avoids both of these pitfalls. In this scenario, the drawn out nature of the suffering is the primary source of horror: the men must gradually face the prospect of their dwindling supplies, and the onset of scurvy. The monster primarily serves to vary the pace, adding an element of surprise and more immediate tension which could otherwise be lacking from the narrative. That no survivors from the expedition were traced is well known and The Terror is, many ways, a grisly catalogue of deaths. But by adding in “the Thing on the Ice” (also a satisfying pop-culture reference to that notorious horror at the other pole) Simmons ratchets up the suspense, adding the burning question “how?” to the more inevitable “how long?” The creature feature aspect of the book has received mixed reviews in the past but I think it works brilliantly, and also allows for some truly memorable action set pieces such as the scene in which Ice Master Blanky is pursued across the ship and especially the new year carnival. “Oh, my, Mr Poe would love that I think,” comments one character as the men prepare for their masque amidst the permanent darkness of the Arctic winter. And yes, I believe he would. It’s a hearty recommendation.
An enthralling read, then, with much to enjoy. But The Terror is not without its flaws and these were thrown into sharper relief second time around as I returned to this novel with more knowledge both of polar exploration and of the author’s other works. Simmons’ passion for research shines through and while, as a polar nerd, I appreciated the intricacy of his detail, at times it did feel forced. Part of the art of research is knowing what information to let go as well as what to include and, as I’ve commented in relation to his other books, Simmons seems reluctant to let anything go. This is a long book, and that works because it really captures a sense of slow starvation and gradually gathering despair but it still would have benefited from more aggressive editing. Asides like the reference to Darwin and Fitzroy’s travels on The Beagle, though interesting, feel shoehorned in, as do those external events perceived via Crozier’s alleged “second sight.” Similarly, the character of Dr. Goodsir (who is not a naval man and asks a lot of pertinent questions) becomes too much of an excuse for explanations and exposition. As in Drood, there are also a few linguistic anachronisms that creep in, such a Goodsir’s mention of a “gopher.” Such digressions and oversights can be off-putting in a work so character driven and otherwise well done but, though disappointing, thankfully they are not enough to disrupt the overall atmosphere of page-turning tension.
If you’ve read this book I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ending. I won’t spoil things for those who haven’t by saying exactly what happens but suffice to say the final few chapters of The Terror mark a radical shift of tone and focus. First time around I was floored by this. I appreciated Simmons’ efforts to try something different, reaching into Inuit mythology (albeit, from what I can tell, a rather fictionalised mish-mash of different tribal legends) to provide an alternative perspective, but I couldn’t decide if this section was really successful or not. This time I knew what was coming and actually found the book much more of an organic whole: when you know what to look for, there are tiny clues strewn throughout the action that make the conclusion seem less of a shocker. Doomed polar expeditions don’t make for the most uplifting reading, of course, but there are plenty of moments of tenderness and humour mixed in with the frequent gore and despair in this book. Simmons’ ending could be accused of fantastical wish fulfillment. Certainly it contains more promise than might have been expected, but ultimately – for all Simmons’ research – this is a work of fantasy, and I found it was a wish that I too wanted to see fulfilled.
Far from perfect, then, but still one hell of a voyage as well as being a powerful voyage into Hell: as Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote of his experiences at the other pole, “Dante was right when he places the circles of ice below the circles of fire.” Simmons’ novel has much to recommend it to fans of horror and historical fiction alike. I understand now that some of my initial rapture in response to this book was really a response to its subject matter and to the thrill of having discovered the literary lure of the Ice, but The Terror still deserves its position, entrenched as firmly as the marooned Erebus and Terror, in my list of top reads.
Apparently the novel is currently being adapted as a TV series. I hope they can do it justice; the linchpin has to be who they cast as Crozier. I will follow developments with interest.