An Epic Tragedy re-imagined as a battle against a supernatural beast as well as the polar elements, starvation, cannibalism, and treachery. Good times!
Dan Simmons is a craftsman. He wields the pen like a precision tool, writing complex and heavily detailed and researched real event into a what-if counterfactual story. The Terror is the re-telling of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition from 1846-1848, that was one of the British Royal Navy’s attempts to find the fabled Northwest Passage, that would provide a faster route for the British to access the ports of the Pacific, without having to make the much longer haul around Cape Horn, and the rough Antarctic seas. This was Britain at the peak of its power, her proudest time when England ruled the seas and had little to no competition for global pre-eminence. It also was a time when they sent many explorers to their deaths in frozen wastelands. This was one of the famous expeditions, in which two of the Royal Navy’s finest and most modern ships the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, along with the full complement of 129 men were lost, having gotten frozen in off King William Island in Canada, most of whom died trying to march their way south to find open water, and to find a food source to replace their poisoned canned rations and moldy biscuits, and perhaps a rescue party. In an era filled with disastrous arctic expeditions (Scott, Ziegler, Hall, and DeLong all had disastrous attempts at glory), this was a tremendous loss of life, and the bodies weren’t found until 1981. The wreck of the Erebus was finally found in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016.
Simmons took the bulk of the known facts about the expedition, and if the story wasn’t harrowing enough, with the frigid temperatures, starvation, scurvy, and treacherous shipmates… he injected a fantastic polar beast that hunts and obliterates the crew. The creature shows up at the most inopportune times to wreak the plans of the expedition and provides the story with a propulsive menace… and bloodshed. Simmons has a documentarian’s love of the specific, like Michael Crichton before him. His novels like Abomination and The Song of Kali also delve into horror, but also have the feel of scholarly fare. If you don’t come out of having read (or in my case listened) to the book, and you don’t have a better understanding of sailing and Inuit culture, you weren’t paying attention. For those of you who would skim through the technical passages of books, you may want to take a pass on this, because there is a lot of it. For me, this was a treat. Because this book is, I would surmise, about 50% based on the actual expedition, it had a pervading persuasiveness to it. When Simmons breaks down what scurvy does to a body, you will find yourself absently scratching yourself.
The Terror is populated with a fabulous roster of interesting characters, and since the narrator switches perspectives, it helps break the book into easily digestible passages. First and foremost, the irascible captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier, is a charismatic and powerful central figure, who has a remarkable story arc through the entirety of the book. You have confidence in this man, and I found myself respecting his decisions, lamenting his errors, and identifying with him the whole time. The foppish and ineffective leader of the expedition, Sir John Franklin is exactly the opposite. Frustrating, and maddeningly stuck in the aristocratic ways of the British Navy, you want to slap him around and get him pointed in the right direction… but you know that this is a doomed expedition, and you wonder if he really was as much of a failure in real life. Another brilliant character that is introduced is the mysterious Lady Silence, an Eskimo woman who drifts in and out of the stranded ships like a furry ghost, and she is the clear representative of the follies of naval pride, by not embracing what she can do, and what she could teach them.
Also terrific are the treacherous little Cornelius Hickey, the awkward and boyish Lieutenant Irving, the prudish and bookish Surgeon Goodsir, and the daring ice master Thomas Blanky, all of whom enrich the storytelling of the doomed expedition. I chose to listen to the audiobook for The Terror, and I highly recommend this for long drives. Tom Sellwood delivers a tour de force of narration, with wonderfully expressive accents and cadence. I found myself sitting in my driveway just to listen to another chapter… he’s mesmerizing. Big props to Mr. Sellwood for nailing (or what I perceive to be nailing) the Inuit dialog. That’s tricky diction. The tension of the narration had me at times turning off the audio and had me running around my living room, in recognition of the implications of the events in the book. No! No! No! (OK gotta tune back in…) This is a very long listen, 28 and a half hours of recording… so be ready for that.
Also, and probably most pressing is that AMC is coming out with a fantastic looking production of The Terror, which is produced by Ridley Scott, and it has Game of Thrones level visuals and looks to be the next big thing for AMC. The trailers suggest that AMC nailed the casting. The series looks to be ten episodes… and given that the book is 67 chapters long, I suspect that this will be just season one. I sure hope this goes to 30 episodes… I would be a happy man if so. The show premieres on Monday, March 26, so you have enough time to binge read/listen to the book before the show starts up.
I have read a lot of Dan Simmons. His sci-fi pilgrimage book Hyperion is a modern masterpiece, and both the aforementioned Song for Kali and Abominable were impressive reads, but none of them really kept my attention like The Terror. I highly recommend this book for those who enjoy historical thrillers, monster tales, and counterfactual accounts.In truth, I probably didn’t even need the monster, as the horrors of the situation were scary enough… but the creature has a Moby Dick-like influence on Crozier, Franklin, and the Crew, and that little bit of fiction helps provide some fun flavor to this frozen treat of a tale.