A peculiar blend of historical fiction and supernatural horror, The Terror is a chilling speculation on the fate of the doomed 19th-century polar expedition led by Sir John Franklin. Though it’s not an easy breezy read at over 900 pages long, it’s a meticulously researched, deeply absorbing and deeply nightmarish tour de force.
I adored Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, one of the most ambitious and imaginative sci-fi novels I’ve ever read, but for some reason I never really thought of tracking down his other books. So I came upon this one in a roundabout way through the History Buffs YouTube channel, which favourably reviewed the recent mini-series adaptation with Jared Harris, Ciarán Hinds and Tobias Menzies (who to me will always remain Julius Caesar and Brutus from Rome, sorry Game of Thrones fans). I put it on my lengthy things-to-watch list, and in the meantime I thought I’d investigate the original novel.
The Franklin expedition, which set out from England in 1845 on the ships Erebus and Terror in search of the Northwest Passage (a long-desired jackpot route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans), was a spectacularly tragic failure, a grim “everybody dies” kind of story. The two ships got trapped in the ice off King William Island in what’s now Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, which then failed to melt come summer. The survivors eventually marched south but none of the 100-plus men made it out alive, succumbing to cold, starvation and disease. The remains found years later suggested evidence of cannibalism, and lead poisoning from the canned food was also speculated on.
I read almost half of the book in a long marathon session while sick in bed, and by the evening I could almost hear the groaning of the ice and the howling arctic wind. The long, cold, dark and dreary months onboard the icebound ships and the final arduous trek across the stark desolate landscape are explored in the novel through a range of character perspectives, including John Franklin, his second-in-command Captain Francis Crozier, and the personal diaries of Dr Goodsir (a gentle and moral soul who is one of the most purely sympathetic characters in the book).
To be honest not all of the characters stand out in this busy ensemble and at times I lost track of who was who, but Crozier’s characterisation in particular is vivid and very well done. An outsider in the British Navy on account of being Irish, he’s a melancholy man, a high-functioning alcoholic with a quick temper and a personal romantic misfortune that drove him back to the ice.
As if the freezing temperatures, endless dark of the polar winter, dwindling coal supplies, frostbite, spoiled cans of food, the threat of scurvy and ice that’s slowly crushing the ships in its grip weren’t enough, the crew of Erebus and Terror are stalked by a monstrous creature that picks the men off one by one. At first they assume an oversized polar bear that can be dispatched with a well-aimed shot, but it soon becomes clear that they’re dealing with a supernatural terror that eats polar bears for breakfast. Another mystical story thread in the book has to do with a young indigenous woman nicknamed Lady Silence by the men, who comes to reside on the ship and whose motives are a mystery.
Dan Simmons’ prose may not always be elegant and there are a few clunky passages and transitions, but it manages to conjure up a harsh and remote world that, for all purposes, is as alien as the fantastical imagery in Hyperion. The whole supernatural monster aspect had me sitting on the fence for a large chunk of the book; was it really necessary when the real-life story surely had enough drama and tragedy on its own? Eventually I had to admit that weaving the supernatural horror into the historical horror made the novel feel rather unique, and its absence would rob the story of some of its most memorable sequences, such as the surreal costumed party on the ice intended as a morale boost that goes horribly wrong.
Alongside the terror wreaked by the monster, the later chapters dealing with the miserable journey southward have some truly stomach-turning body horror, as well as heartbreaking moments when it looks like the men’s fortunes might be turned around, only for the hopes to be cruelly dashed, often through the meanness of their own fellow men.
P.S. It’s just as well that I came to terms with the supernatural side of the novel: without spoiling anything, the book goes full-on mystical and heavy on the Esquimaux lore in the final pages, a shift that would be hard to swallow if one wasn’t onboard with this aspect.