The Abominable by Dan Simmons

The Abominable

Published: 2013 by Sphere
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote:This altitude is not of this world, I think dully. We humans are not meant or evolved to be up here, I think, with some small sense of panic stirring in me. At the same time, a totally contradictory thought rises to the surface: I’m meant to be here. I’ve waited all my life for this.

Imagine, if you will, purchasing a cinema ticket to see The Thing (John Carpenter’s original, not the inferior remake), only to find as the lighting dims instead that you’ve somehow wandered instead into a screening of Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, not that abysmal Crystal Skull sequel). Stay for the ride anyway and you’re sure to enjoy a classic action adventure,  overblown but thrilling and fun all the same. A good evening out, for sure, yet the nagging feeling may persist that it isn’t quite what you signed up for. Dan Simmons’ latest novel offers an analogous experience: I loved it, but the blurb, the advertising buzz around it, even the cover, all seem to pitch this as a spiritual successor to Simmons’ 2007 novel The Terror – setting up expectations for a very different kind of novel from the one that is actually delivered.

Certainly there are similarities between the two novels. Both tell stories of endurance and the horrors of trying to conquer landscapes that are simply not conducive to human life and both feature brave adventurers from a former time who are woefully ill equipped for the challenges ahead of them. In The Terror, Simmons takes real historical characters and a genuine enigma – the precise fate of Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition – and fills in the blanks with “the Thing on the Ice” a supernatural horror above and beyond the hunger, scurvy, freezing and even cannibalism of more historically grounded theories. The Abominable, meanwhile, engages the question of whether or not Mallory and Irvine successfully reached the summit before their demise during their famous – and fatal – attempt on Everest in 1924. Rather than imaginatively depicting these two notorious climbers themselves, Simmons invents his own group of adventurers following hot on the heels of the Mallory expedition: ostensibly to search for the body of an Englishman who was lost on the mountain around the same time as Mallory, but all the while also harbouring their own aspirations on the summit.

Although the main characters are all fictional, Simmons seems far more concerned here than in The Terror to ground his narrative in reality. The Abominable uses a framing device that is interesting if not entirely convincing to pitch the story as a found document. The introduction features Simmons himself as a character interviewing an aged explorer, Jake Perry, as part of his research for the novel that became The Terror. Although he had travelled in polar regions – he was in Antarctica with Byrd, we learn – Perry’s most powerful reminisces are of his climbing experiences and so, encouraged by his encounter with the professional author, he goes on to record his memories, a manuscript that comprises the rest of the book,

Yet readers who are familiar with Simmons’ work would be left with no doubts that what follows is his own invention. The author’s signature style is abundantly clear here: contrasting scenes of high octane adventure with glacially-paced passages that demonstrate in full his meticulous research. I now know more than I ever needed to about early twentieth-century mountain climbing techniques and the advantages of twelve point crampons over ten point ones. I’ve noted before how Simmons seems reluctant to jettison even the most inconsequential nuggets of historical fact and a harsher editor would surely exorcise much of the repetition of climbing technicalities that occurs here. Yet for all this, The Abominable is a page turner, and kept me gripped from beginning to end. As in Melville’s classic Moby Dick, the slow overly-technical passages consistently serve to intensify the intervening episodes of adventure – and what an adventure that is.

As Susanna Jones has hinted, Mountain climbing must be a close cousin of polar exploration. Particularly in their historical infancy, both exploits leave us marvelling at the inspiring courage of those who attempt them, while simultaneously wondering what madness could lure people to such inhospitable landscapes in the first place. Simmons accentuates this contrast through his lively and fascinating cast: expedition leader “The Deacon” a stalwart veteran both of climbing and combat; likeable Jean-Claude, an Alpine guide whose sunny disposition masks his lingering rage at the horror his French family experienced during the First World War; and Cousin Reggie a privileged tea-plantation owner whose presence on the expedition is a grudgingly accepted condition of its funding, but who turns out to be one of the novel’s best characters.  Against these vividly painted figures, our narrator Jake is something of a cipher. A young American, I felt too often that he existed simply to ask pertinent questions about the simmering state of inter-war European politics.

And there are a lot of politics in The Abominable. Before they even head for the Himalayas we follow the group’s practise climbs and a requisitioning of equipment and information that takes them deep into the heart of a Germany still reeling from defeat, a climate in which a certain National Socialist German Workers Party is rising to prominence. Although the novel does explore mountain lore and Tibetan mythology, it does not – despite the hints of its title and advertising – tread the same routes of supernatural horror as The Terror. Let’s assess the ingredients: a 1920s setting, vast country estates, war heroes, Nazis, an Indian travel odyssey, sometimes uncomfortable talk of Empire, the physical challenge of the climb, and a plucky band of adventurers brought together by the promise conquering an untrodden peak. What Simmons has created here is a classic Boy’s Own adventure; one that is so retro it almost feels refreshing.

Although I enjoyed the tense pursuit of Franklin and his men by the otherworldly Thing, the real Terror in The Terror was not the beast but the Arctic landscape and  the more insidious threats of starvation, freezing and encroaching madness. Simmons pulls a similar trick here: Jake’s memoir is punctuated by powerful observations on the inhospitable heights of Everest: “At and above 8,000 meters, your body is dying – literally dying, more so every minute you stay at such an altitude. The technical term is necrosis.” This is a slowly told tale and though it takes some considerable time for the narrative to even reach Himalayan soil, little by little the group do increase their altitude and as the air thins the tension rockets. Pressure comes from the environment, from social tensions within the group, and from the increasingly mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of their putative target, the lost Lord Bromley. Simmons provokes his readers to reassess what could truly deserve the title “abominable.”

In the novel’s final quarter the tone changes considerably and it becomes an out and out thriller. I have to say I wasn’t fully convinced by the speculative historical sleight of hand that constitutes Simmons’ grand finale but when you reach the top of a roller-coaster there is only one way to go. It’s best not to over think the coming descent, just enjoy the adrenalin rush. After its slow ascent, The Abominable delivers on the same kind of level, and having become so invested in its central characters and their remarkable exploits, at the time I was happy enough to enjoy the ride even if afterwards the doubts gathered. But a mountain is not a roller-coaster and – as Jake’s narrative is at pains to point out – descent can begin at any point of the climb, with adventurers reaching base camp possibly triumphant, possibly defeated, or possibly in a bloodied mess of dismemberment. Will the Deacon’s expedition summit? Will they find Bromley? Might they even find Mallory and Irvine? For all the other threads of intrigue running through this meaty novel it is really these fundamental questions of man versus mountain that power the book, and which kept me turning the pages.

There’s a lot wrong with this book but if you’re not a Simmons virgin then you’ll probably know already what sorts of faults to expect. If you’re willing to forgive these (occasionally through gritted teeth) you can also expect an impressively researched, old-timey adventure that takes you deep into the crevasses and increasingly sheer cliffs of the most famous mountain on Earth. It’s a ride worth taking. Although those who travel purely in search of ice demons may be disappointed.

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