Review: “The Terror”

In the spring of 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led two ships of the British Navy — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — on a voyage to discover the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. They were the first steam-powered vessels to attempt such a venture. Neither the ships nor their crews were ever seen again.

That much we know. The actual fate of the 130-odd men on that doomed expedition will forever remain a mystery. But where history leaves off, Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror picks up the tale, giving a fictionalized account of what might have happened to Captains Franklin and Crozier and their crews as they weathered the next three years trapped in the Arctic ice.

The result is a harrowing story of slow death and creeping despair, as the expedition gradually succumbs to cold, hunger, thirst, frostbite, sunburn, scurvy, fatigue, accidents, spoiled food, isolation, and their own encroaching madness. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, as Simmons has it, they must also contend with a mysterious creature on the ice that seems Hell-bent on slaughtering them to the last man.

Simmons blends the horror and historical genres with the deftness of a expert storyteller. At 766 pages this is a big book, but it’s a taut and gripping one that keeps the reader moving relentlessly toward its conclusion. So skillful is Simmons at relating the human tragedy of his tale, in fact, that I’m left to wonder why he found it necessary to include the supernatural horror elements at all.

Simmons’ meticulous research is what makes this book work. The acknowledgements at the back list three pages of sources, and the attention to detail shows. Everything about 19th-century naval life, from the uniforms and armaments, to the customs and practices of the service, to the coal-burning stove that works ’round-the-clock to bake biscuits for the crew’s meals, rings with accuracy.

No detail is glossed over or taken for granted. Simmons’ descriptions of “man-hauling” sledges loaded with supplies and sick crewmen across the treacherous ice in the fog and freezing sleet will have you bundling up under the covers, and his account of one crewman’s death from what could only be botulism — although no 19th-century surgeon would recognize it as such — is truly horrifying.

Simmons also has a keen sense of the culture and climate of Victorian England. Indeed, too often it is the men’s own stubborn Britishness that undermines their hopes for survival. For example, Captain Crozier forbids his crew from wearing the skins of slain animals because it seems to him like “heathen totemism.” As a result, they must fight to keep warm beneath layers of sodden, frozen wool. And when a group of Marines encounters an Inuit hunting party on the ice, they see the natives’ weapons and immediately open fire on the “savages” — thus alienating the expedition from the only people who might have helped them replenish their dwindling food supply.

Amid all this, I have to wonder why Simmons chose to include the creature the crew comes to call the Terror — a huge, bearlike beast that can seemingly appear at will, is completely impervious to attack, and is possessed of a cold and murderous intelligence with no other aim than to rip the crew to ribbons at every opportunity.

Compared to the very real horrors the expedition must face, this mythical monster seems out of place. If anything, it only cheapens the survival-horror aspect of the story. If an impossible creature is fair play, then anything can happen. Who knows? The expedition could be teleported to safety at any moment. For every sudden death-by-monster, a crewman could just as easily have fallen through the ice, or broken a leg at the hip, or been hit by accidental gunfire — so why this choice? Did commercial pressures convince Simmons that he couldn’t deliver a strict historical novel, or was it a simple lack of confidence?

Don’t get me wrong. The Terror was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I recommend it. The scenes with the monster do allow Simmons to inject some action into what otherwise might have been a slow, sad story of men starving to death, and in the end the monster does serve another purpose for Simmons’ plot. I’m just not convinced it was a satisfying one.

Simmons’s previous works have included the science fiction novels Hyperion and Ilium, and I think his propensity for the fantastic would have been better left to those types of projects. With The Terror he demonstrates his potential to become a powerful new voice in historical fiction. Here’s hoping that his upcoming novel, Drood a fictionalized account of the last years of Charles Dickens — has the guts to offer its subject matter at face value.