The Terror

By: Dan Simmons
Published by: Little, Brown and Company (January 8, 2007)

The Terror is really two books: the first one is terrific. The second one is predictable and trite.

I was introduced to Dan Simmons a few years ago when I was given the book Hyperion for Christmas. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but it was one of those "discovery" books that enthrall you, and which you want to go on reading forever.

Dan Simmons is first and foremost a very competent writer. He is not a demanding presence in his books. In the case of a Jane Austin, for example, a strong writer's persona can be a delight, but in the hands of lesser writers, it can also be a distraction. Simmons, however, is an omniscient author who sees all and comments little. (Which is why the end of this book is such a disappointment - but more on that later!) He is marvelously observant, and captures tone, mood, atmosphere and nuance brilliantly. His dialog is strong and believable.

Moreover, Simmons is a writer who can conjure. There are some writers - like Ira Levin, or Stephen King, for example - who are adept at faithfully recreating "reality" to such a degree that the horror, change-ups, or supernatural events that occur work all the better once the reader has been lulled into a trance of uber-mundanity. And then there are writers, like Simmons, who have a gift for creating worlds that don't exist, or that most of us have never experienced - and utterly convincing us of their reality.

In this book, Simmons takes a real event - the Franklin Expedition of the 1840s, which went in search of the fabled "northwest passage," and applies a wonderful "what if."

Famous in its day for having simply disappeared, traces of the Franklin Expedition were sought by many adventurers for years after the ships and crew vanished. It wasn't until the 1980s that investigators learned that not only had the two ships on the expedition been frozen for three years into unseasonal polar ice, but that crew members had likely been poisoned by canned food, rotten from poor processing, and sealed with lead seams, the lead probably leaking into the food. And there is ample evidence from the remaining bones of the crew that they had resorted to cannibalism in their final, desperate days.

Simmon's "what if" is: what if all the evidence found of the expedition (that nobody survived; that the ships could not be located; that the bones showed evidence of butchery; the location of various graves and sets of bones; and the final, strange discovery of one pile of butchered bones accompanied by a whole, if desiccated, body seated on a sled, surrounded by guns, odd trinkets, and food) indicated not the sad struggle of doomed men to eke out one more day on a frozen wasteland, but that these men had been haunted by, and ravaged by, a beast of supernatural origin?

Taking a cue, perhaps from the likes of a Stephen King, Simmons writes a book so detailed, so specific in terms of how the men lived, what they suffered, and how they died, that the reader feels he is living the adventure with them. (And a perfect adventure it is for one of the coldest and snowiest February's in recent memory!)And then he tosses in an exotic monster, more fearful and savage, and more intelligently cruel, than the cold itself.

The book opens with the final days of Sir John Franklin, ill-fated captain of the expedition. It is 1847, and the ships, Erebus and Terror, and the crews, have spent one miserable winter iced in on Beechey Island. Equipped with steam boilers for both powered navigation and heat, and ships stuffed with canned, salted, and dried foodstuffs, Franklin is confident that the expedition can still be a success. Except, of course, for the nameless monster that is stalking and killing members of his crew.

Appearing out of nowhere, impossibly large, impossibly quiet, and impossibly deadly, the beast seems to be some amalgam of polar bear, ice, cold and fear itself. The unhappy men never know when it will attack, how it will kill, or where it goes when it is done. The killings, of course, account for at least some of the butcher-marked bones found by investigators searching for clues to the vanished expedition.

Though it is Franklin's expedition, the book belongs to Francis Crozier (Franklin himself is dispatched early on, killed by the beast, but in truth a victim of his own arrogance and ignorance). Command falls to Crozier and FitzJames, and eventually, FitzJames wastes away, disappearing a bit more each day.

Finally, it is up to Crozier to lead his men out of the Arctic.

And this is precisely what he cannot do. For all his wisdom, his honesty, his integrity, and his essential goodness, by the time he is in command, Crozier has already died to the "real" world. In fact, he experiences several deaths and resurrections in the course of the novel: when he gives up drinking; when he abandons the ships; when he is "killed" by arch-villain Cornelius Hickey (the nasty little weasel of a caulker's mate); and finally when he gives himself up to the mysterious ways of his new Inuit wife, and life.

And it is this last, Crozier conversion to Inuit shaman, that spoils the book for me. Shot multiple times by Hickey, Crozier crawls off into the ice, and is rescued by the strange Inuit woman, Lady Silence, whose husband or father is killed by the sailors, and who then becomes their on-again, off-again house guest. She is unable to speak, however, as her tongue has been gnawed off.

This is where the "second" book begins: it now becomes the story of Crozier finding his deep inner self, accepting the role of spirit-guide for the Inuit people, consort of the Inuit goddess Sedna (personified by Silence). Abandoning his old life with nary a look back, Crozier gleefully burns what remains of The Terror, and lives, we presume, happily ever after. The author not only departs on an entirely different thread here, he stoops so low as to apparently create a Sedna myth in which she foresees the coming of the "pale people," who will bring death, destruction, and global warming with them.

The monster is merely a hungry spirit controlled by the spirit-guides; the ice and snow are not fearful when one has an iglu and warm furs (not to mention a beautiful and silent wife); the ships and all the suffering men are gone; the arctic paradise is safe for another few years from the depredations of the white men.

Read the book, anyway. The first 650 pages or so are well worth your time, and while true historians will not necessarily be happy, as one fascinated by the Franklin Expedition, and having read several books on the subject, I found Simmons research and detail to be excellent and true. And if you want to quit once Crozier and Silence start their trek across the ice, don't say I didn't warn you.


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