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 His friendship with Captain Fitzjames (a fascinating and withdrawn character in his own right) and their quiet support of one another leads to a heartbreaking scene toward the end of the book.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.
The book also follows several secondary protagonists, and amazingly they’re all nearly as interesting. Foremost is Dr. Goodsir, one of four ships’ surgeons and the only one not to meet an early demise. Dr. Goodsir goes from disrespected weakling to a man with more resilience and honor than anyone imagined. Along with the aforementioned Captain Fitzjames, we follow Lieutenant Little, a likable officer who has the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There are Bridgens and Peglar, a pair of learned sailors who hold intellectual discussions and a secret passion (that is handled with amazing deftness by Simmons). Finally, Ice Master Blanky should be mentioned, if only for the jaw-dropping and toe-clenching chapter where he is hunted by the monster during a terrible snow storm high in The Terror‘s masts.
The antagonists are rather ho-hum in comparison. Sir John Franklin is portrayed as a typical royal buffoon. He’ s the type of idiot who brings fine china and other fancy accoutrements to an arctic expedition. Naturally, his arrogance ultimately leads to the two ships being bound by ice. Caulker’s Mate Cornelius Hickey is Captain Crozier’s primary foil. He’s a right bastard of a man… unfortunately, we don’t know much about Hickey until late in the book. Even then, he’s pretty much a right bastard for no real reason other than that he just is (which is true of many assholes, I suppose).
The speculative aspects of Simmon’s novel exist solely in the monster and a mute young Eskimo woman called Lady Silence by the crew.
I could spend another 2,500 words talking about the symbolism and metaphors tossed out by Simmons. The monster as nature’s retaliation against the atrocities committed to her by humanity. Lady Silence as an emblem of native innocence. Sir John Franklin as a placeholder for our modern arrogance. But this isn’t a term paper and I ain’t being paid by the word.
What I will tell you, that other than a slightly ill-fitting conclusion, this is a wonderful novel. Dan Simmons now has three books that place among my personal all-time favorites: the Hyperion Cantos and now The Terror.