At 766 pages, Dan Simmons epic, The Terror, is a daunting tale to tackle. This fictionalized retelling of the lost 1845 Franklin expedition to find the Arctic Ocean north-west passage can be slow going, but if you stick with it will find one of the most rewarding experiences of literary horror that is out there.
The book begins with the two ships on the Franklin expedition, the flagship H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, trapped in the arctic ice. As the tale unfolds we learn how the ships became trapped and how dire their situation is. On board is a mute Eskimo woman that was found on the ice the crew has taken to calling Lady Silence, and out on the ice is an unseen menace that bedevils both ships and strikes with heretofore unseen intelligence, strength, and brutality. Their food stores are half rotten, the ships are hopelessly mired in the ice, and mutinous talk is starting to become more audible to the officers.
The novel is told in the third person with each chapter focusing on one specific character. As the novel wears on these character chapters repeat and it starts becoming clear who the main characters are in this group of 120+ men, and also includes one-off chapters meant to show a specific event from one view point. As I mentioned before, the 766 page book is a brick to get through. The first couple hundred pages are slow going with the constantly shifting view points. The reader starts to discover that the main characters are expedition leader Sir John Franklin, Captain Francis Crosier of the Terror, Captain James Fitzjames of the Erebus, Third Lieutenant John Irving of Terror, and Dr. Goodsir, ship’s surgeon aboard Erebus. There are other voices along the way, but those five serve as our main view points for the story. As the story progresses there are numerous descriptions of maritime life aboard a ship in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy and any fan of nautical adventure should be right at home. Myself, I have to admit to consulting Wiki articles a few times to truly understand the meaning of terms like the “fo’c’sle” and “orlop deck”.
The Terror is a book that is very difficult to write about to make someone understand why it is worth reading. I think that the length of the book works to make the reader wholly identify with the plight of the men on those ships. The near endless descriptions of the bleak landscape and dripping and cold conditions as well as the horrific effects of disease from botulism and scurvy on the men puts the reader right there on those ships with the officers and crew. Like any good apocalypse story, The Terror is really about the character of the men that are faced with their own uncertain future. What path will they take? What line will they refuse to cross? Who will be hero and who will be villain?
The Terror is a novel that I read thinking I knew how it would end but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Simmons uses the historical record of the doomed expedition, as well as the real men on those ships, to tell a story that is deceptively simple but utterly haunting and complex when examined as a whole piece. This is one of the single most satisfying books I have read in some time and I would be shocked if you had told me 200 pages before the end that I would be writing this sentence.
I write that because I think the book is absolutely worth reading if you are a fan of either historical fiction, horror, thrillers, adventures, or any combination thereof but it can be difficult at times to get through. While the monster on the ice is absolutely horrifying it is the villainy of men that ultimately leads to the doom of the expedition.
When I was in my teens I devoured all of Stephen King and Dean Koontz books before moving on and out of the genre. I still love horror, but I had grown tired of the cliche and convention. I’m happy to say that The Terror is a horror novel that shatters expectation and is a wholly new and worthwhile experience. As the finale drew near I wasn’t sure if I really liked where it was going but The Terror is a book that is almost built to be re-read and seen differently the next time through. What Dan Simmons has done is written a novel that can be taken as allegory, hero’s journey, horror, cautionary tale and meta commentary on isolation, all simultaneously.
For anyone that is willing to take the journey to the end The Terror is a novel you will not soon forget.