There is something huge out there in the dark. Something vast and terrible and relentless that will not let you escape. It demands your attention. It wants you to worship it.
Yes Dan Simmons’ new book is so huge it’s scary.
But ignore, if you can, the irony that an object this big is published by company called Bantam Books (they’re laughing at you reader, really) and admire the way Simmons grabs you from the very first page of the very first chapter and demands that you read every single word – even when you’re screaming for relief from the pain of holding the damn thing up.
The Terror takes as its starting point the true story of the Franklin Expedition, a doomed effort to discover the Northwest Passage over Alaska, through pack ice and into the Pacific. The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus become trapped, their supplies (many of which have been poorly packed and are tainted) are running low, the men are beginning to suffer from scurvy but, much worse, they are being stalked by something on the ice. This huge, cunning, voracious monster is killing men. Near the start on it claims the commander of the expedition, Sir John Franklin, leaving Captain Francis Crozier to try and lead his men across the inhospitable ice towards safety.
The Terror is an easy and exciting book to read, but it isn’t perfect.
Taking the story of the doomed Franklin Expedition might seem a safe enough option. These men have been dead for 160 years. Who could plausibly care whether Simmons embroiders the known facts by chucking in a murderous, ravenous predator and plays a little loose with their characters to make them more palatable to modern audiences?
Except Simmons has done his research so well and does such a believable job of resurrecting the men of the two ships’ crews that the reader does, quite quickly, come to care whether the portrayal of them is accurate.
One result of Simmons’ successful recreation of time, place and people is that the giant polar bear at the core of the book’s horror subplot can feel out of place. The plight of these men is so terrible that the creature stalking them hardly seems necessary to make their situation worse. Apart from this vaguely mystical predator, everything about the story feels so firmly grounded in highly-researched reality that the improbable monster sometimes feels as though it has dropped onto The Terror’s pages from a quite different story.
Simmons seems aware of this and devotes a number of passages to justifying the creature’s existence – with varying degrees of success. That said, the monster does give the novel some of its most memorable scenes and Simmons does use it as an effective agent of terror so that even though it occasionally feels anachronistic, the bear does serve a purpose.
Taking a true story also acts against some of the tension in the plot. We know these men are doomed from quite early on – because we know that if the story of their molestation on the ice had made it back to civilisation then this would be the most famous incident in the history of human exploration rather than a footnote in Arctic history.
Still, The Terror works even knowing the men’s approximate fates because Simmons succeeds creating a cast of characters we care about.
The only real disappointment in the The Terror is that it slips into an unnecessary and unconvincing mysticism towards the end. This allow Simmons to drop in a topical warning about the dangers of climate change but it is at the expense of the real strength of this novel, Simmons command of the physicality of this frozen world. There are times in this book when I found myself shivering alongside the men of HMS Terror, and it is only when Simmons moves away from the cruelty and pain of the ice and onto more mystic plains that he leaves the reader behind. Even so, The Terror is a proper page-turner, offering entertainment aplenty and some truly memorable passages.
Dan Simmons – The Terror
Bantam Books, 2007, 944 pages, £7.99, ISBN 978-0-553-81820-8