Tuesday, October 28, 2008
weekly book review, halloween edition: the terror, by dan simmons
On May 19th, 1845, British bombships Erebus and Terror set sail from the Thames River stocked will three years worth of food, 126 men, and the mission of seeking out the elusive Northwest Passage. Being that they are traveling on the first steam-powered vessels ever to explore the icy Arctic waters, the men think they have every reason to be confident, but by 1848 all passengers were presumed dead and neither ship was ever seen again. Unsuccessful expeditions charged with finding the missing ships produced clues as to how the men may have met their end, but to this day the individual fates of the men of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are at best a speculation.

Dan Simmons blends what little is known of this doomed Arctic excursion into The Terror - a fictionalized account of Sir John Franklin's final voyage. Simmons' story opens on Francis Crozier, Captain of the HMS Terror, who has been landlocked in a frozen landscape for the better part of a year thanks to Franklin's poor decision making. Beset by ice, Crozier and his fellow captains had hoped for a summertime thaw that never came, and so are in the middle of their second winter spent trapped on their quickly failing ships. As if things were not bad enough, their dwindling food supply is feared to be contaminated by poisonous lead, several restless sailors are in danger of becoming mutinous, and they are being slowly stalked by a supernatural polar bear-ish monster that is methodically hunting and eating the crew. One-by-one, the men of Erebus and Terror begin to meet their terrible ends - victims of either the elements, their poisonous rations, or the strange monster that seems able to appear and disappear from the ice as if by magic. It eventually falls on Crozier to led these men off their ships and into the barren landscape, desperate for a chance at a salvation that seems impossible.

With Halloween just around the bend, my craving for a scary book led me to The Terror, despite approaching it with some hesitancy due to the fact that I'm not the biggest fan of historical fiction, frankly couldn't care less about nautical journeys, and - weighing in at a whopping 771 pages - The Terror looked like a beastly tome requiring the sort of time I wasn't really sure I was willing to commit. But it quickly became clear that the time it would take to tackle The Terror would be time well spent, as I quickly found myself drawn into the world of Crozier and his men.

Ultimately, The Terror reads like two separate novels - one a nautical disaster and the other a supernatural thriller -and while I can understand why some would see this as a point of critique, it totally worked for me. I loved the supernatural element every bit as much as I loved reading about the trials and tribulations of the doomed exhibition. For me, the presence of the monster really elevated a misadventure story into something much more imaginative and unique, and although it didn't terrify me exactly, it certainly provided me with a fair share of moments that made my hair stand on end.

All and all, I've never read anything quite like The Terror. It's a tale of survival, of adventure, of horror and of Inuit mythology, and it's also an immensely satisfying read. I can't recommend it enough.

The Terror
Dan Simmons
771 pages, 2007

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