Monday, September 26, 2011

"The Terror" by Dan Simmons

On May 19, 1845 the Franklin expedition set sail from Greenhithe, England on course to explore the Arctic coastal mainland and to map the elusive Northwest Passage. Two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, crewed by 128 men and commanded by Capitan Sir John Franklin, sailed without incident across the Atlantic, stopping briefly in western Greenland before making contact with the whaler Enterprise in Baffin Bay in late August 1845. That was the last time Franklin's expedition would be seen.

The mystery of what happened to the men of the Franklin expedition inspired numerous rescue and recovery expeditions during the late 1800s. A handful of scientific expeditions have also attempted to discover the fate of the Franklin expedition, the last in 2010. The doomed expedition has served as the subject for many works of fiction, film and art, all speculating on the ultimate fate of the Erebus and Terror.

Dan Simmons weaves both fact and fiction as he puts forth his own theory on the fate of the Franklin expedition in The Terror, a thrilling blend of horror, science fiction and historical fiction. Told from the perspective of several crew members, the narrative focuses on Franklin's second in command and captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier, and the aptly-named Henry Goodsir, assistant surgeon aboard the Erebus. Sir Franklin is portrayed here as an overconfident fool, haunted by the failure of his previous Arctic mission, where he became known as "The Man Who Ate His Boots." Crozier, a heavy drinker yet capable leader, is embittered from watching lesser men rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy while he is denied his own command due to his common Irish origins.


"Man Proposes God Disposes"
by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer,
via Wikimedia Commons.
Simmons takes great pains to accurately describe all the finer points of an 1800s Arctic expedition. At times, the level of detail drags the narrative down, although the reader can appreciate the effort to set the scene. Many of the details described - such the manner in which the canned food was prepared and the many different kinds of ice found in the Arctic - do play important roles in the events that follow.

Soon after the Franklin expedition enters the Arctic, the Erebus and later the Terror become entrapped in pack ice. The crew soon finds itself beset with disease, food shortages and the harsh Arctic environment where the temperatures rarely rise above 50 degrees below zero. Some men die of pneumonia or scurvy, others from botulism and lead poisoning caused by the improperly prepared food. More ominously, the crews of the Erebus and Terror soon find themselves stalked by the Thing - a ferocious polar bear-like creature, seemingly possessed of a murderous intelligence - that begins to pick off the crew in ones and twos and later scores more in very dramatic fashion. The horror elements of the novel are best found here, in both the malevolent nature of the Thing and the injuries it inflicts.

Simmons also borrows from established horror authors throughout the novel. One passage in particular, describing the events of Carnivale, a New Year's celebration held by the now ice-bound crew of the Erebus and Terror, skillfully alludes to Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. The crew carves several rooms and passages out of the ice surrounding their ships, each decorated by canvas dyed in bright colors and filled with men dressed in fabulous costumes. Much like the doomed guests of Prince Prospero, many of those in attendance at Carnivale also meet a gruesome end.

As in most horror novels, many of the threats faced by the crew are of their own making and, often times, are the men themselves. Sir Franklin disobeys orders by neglecting to leave message cairns along their route, which may have lead rescuers to the stranded ships. Allegations of mutiny and murder are brought as more men are killed and disfigured. When a mute Inuit woman and her mortally wounded male companion are discovered near the Terror, the situation becomes even more unstable.

Note found in a cairn on
King William Island in 1859,
detailing the fate of the Franklin
Expedition in two messages.
Via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the hardships, the remaining crew clings to the hope of rescue. Nearly two years since the ship were first entrapped in the ice, the surviving crew decides to abandon ship and attempt to reach Back's River by foot, while the Thing continues to pursue them. Conditions worsen further, as does the crew. Madness, suicide and, perhaps inevitably, cannibalism soon follow.

The resolution of the novel, while surprising, is also somewhat uplifting. Villains meet their deserved end and our heroes either die nobly or live on. The ending also displays Simmons' predisposition for science fiction and the supernatural as we learn the true nature of the Thing.

I discovered this novel, as luck would have it, during the third season of Lost, and fans of the show will especially enjoy Simmons' menacing portrayal of the Thing and the bare-knuckle fight for survival. And, much as I found the ending of the TV series, I found The Terror's conclusion paled in comparison to the bulk of the preceding story. In subsequent readings, I've found myself skipping the end and instead relishing the rising tension, the grim choices made to ensure survival and the sometimes gruesome consequences of those choices. But in the darkest parts of the novel can also be found light, in the redemption of Capitan Crozier, the sacrifice of ship's steward Bridgens and the dogged determination of Dr. Goodsir. Fans of horror, historical fiction and suspense will relish this novel and it is best enjoyed on a dark winter's night (with a glass of orange juice to stave off scurvy close at hand).

~ Allison, Adult Services

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