Way back in the year 2007, The Terror, an alt-history horror novel by SF icon Dan Simmons, was released to (mostly) critical acclaim. It is a despairing book, about a British expedition that becomes stuck in the frozen sea ice of northern Canada where the crew must deal with starvation, scurvy, botulism, freezing cold, and mutiny. Complicating matters even further–the crew is being hunted (and eaten) by a mysterious white monster.
A real spirit-lifter, this one…
Simmons imagines what happened to the Sir John Franklin expedition, which set out from Britain in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage only to never be heard from again. The construct of the tragedy gives a talented guy like Dan Simmons a massive sandbox for his imagination. Even the most creative-stunted individual can conjure up a whole bunch of terrifying and frightening encounters the doomed crew of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror might have faced. Having Simmons feeding these types of possibilities into your head… well, that can induce nightmares in a reader (and did so with this one!).
As always with the most horrifying tragedies, it is the against-all-odds heroics that make for the most compelling stories. The book opens after the two ships have become icebound with our primary protagonist, Captain Francois Crozier, speaking to many of his men and walking the ship. It’s a smart bit of writing that establishes many of the important characters, and familiarizes us with the confined spaces of the ship.
Captain Crozier is drawn as a flawed man, stupid and naive with women, a drunk, but he’s also an effective leader who has a remarkable warmth and empathy that gives the novel so much of its emotional pull. He a pathetic fool during flashbacks to a foolish fling with young noble woman. His friendship with Captain Fitzjames (a fascinating and withdrawn character in his own right) and their quiet support of one another leads to a heartbreaking scene toward the end of the book. Crozier burns with the need to survive, and his gritty determinism resonates throughout, even as the reader basically knows how things will play out.