992 pages, Heyne Verlag
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Regular visitors of the 'squawk might have wondered what happened to me in the past month. I've not been on holiday. I've not been in a coma. I've not been kidnapped, chained to a radiator and spoon-fed gruel for four weeks. No, dear readers... I've been to the North Pole.
Not literally, of course. I'd sooner pull out all my fingernails with a pair of pliers than go there. I've spent the past month in the North Pole courtesy of Dan Simmons' 2007 novel “The Terror”.
Clocking in just shy of 800 pages, “The Terror” is a mammoth read. I've never been overwhelmed by a long novel before, but Simmons' fictional account of the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845 came pretty close on several occasions to breaking me.
Before I go on, I'd like to make one thing clear... This isn't going to be a negative review. Whilst I struggled with it, “The Terror” is a hugely impressive novel. I can't think of another writer who would be capable of melding history, horror and mythology together so effectively. Those who have read Simmons' debut novel, “The Song of Kali,” will know that he is a writer who doesn't pull any punches. “The Terror” is so relentlessly bleak and brutal that I fear many readers won't be able to bring themselves to finish it.
The story follows Captain Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition to force the Northwest passage. Using the established historical facts as a springboard, Simmons follows the misfortunes of the HMS Erebus and HMS The Terror. Trapped in the merciless winter ice with an ever dwindling supply of food, the crew of both ships face scurvy and starvation in an inhospitable climate. Aside from the threat of mutiny from the increasingly discontent crew, the captains of the two ships also have to contend with a monstrous creature who stalks the ice and has developed a taste for sailors.
With a huge cast of characters, all based on actual members of the expedition, Simmons is able to explore the story from multiple perspectives. Switching between first-person diary entries and a third-person narrative, present tense to past tense, Simmons writes with the kind of effortless skill many novelists can only dream of. Not once in the novel does he allow the reader to become comfortable. Other than some brilliantly colourful dialogue, there is no comic relief in the whole book. Right from the outset, we know the explorers are doomed but by unravelling the story at such a slow, thoughtful pace the author is able to ensure that it is always engaging and never predictable.
Much of the novel takes place in the cramped confines of the trapped ships. Simmons vividly captures the claustrophobic conditions of life on board. Above decks, the ship is whipped by the sub-zero Arctic winds and snow. Beneath decks, the air is heavy with the stench of unwashed men. In the summer months the sun barely sets. In the winter it never rises. The frustration of the crew and the hopelessness of their situation pervades every page in the novel. Every attempt made to improve their situation is thwarted and tends to result in the unpleasant death of one or more of the crew. After two years trapped in the ice, the ships begin to break up and the surviving members of the expedition abandon the vessels in a desperate attempt to find salvation. Although freed from their self-imposed prisons, life is no better for the explorers on the ice. Obliged to drag heavy sleds laden with sailing boats and supplies, the starving and scurvy-stricken men soon find themselves considering cannibalism in order to stay alive.
The novel focuses on a handful of main characters. Sir John Franklin, the expedition leader, is an obstinate, teetotal prig. His desire to redeem himself after a previous failed Arctic expedition dooms the crew to their cold fate. He's not portrayed as a villain, nor is he a fool. Rather, he is a man all too aware of his own shortcomings and plagued with self-doubt. Francis Crozier, the captain of The Terror, is Franklin's polar opposite. A hard-drinking, tough-talking Irishman, Crozier is by no means a gentleman, but his personal journey is the closest thing to redemption and a happy ending one can hope to find in this hugely pessimistic tome. When Franklin is killed by the monster on the ice, the misanthropic Crozier is forced to take command of the expedition. To add to his problems, much of the tinned food they brought with them has spoiled and is poisoning the crew, the ice that traps the ships shows no sign of thawing and his personal supply of whisky is running low.
By far the most sympathetic character in the novel is Doctor Harry Goodsir, an anatomist and assistant surgeon. His diary entries provide the novel with warmth and compassion, as well as confronting the reader with the stark realities of the crude medical treatments of the day. Like Crozier, Goodsir is put in an unenviable position when he becomes the expedition's sole surviving doctor. Although relatively inexperienced and faced with countless amputations, cases of scurvy and frostbite, Goodsir acquits himself admirably and never once backs down from his responsibilities.
Joining the British men in the Arctic landscape is the enigmatic Lady Silence. A young Eskimo woman without a tongue, she is a silent, unsettling presence on board the ship. As the story progresses, we learn that she has a mysterious link to the creature on the ice and this leads many to suspect her of being a witch. Her ability to survive in the frozen wilderness gives her the edge over the hapless men who tolerate her strangeness in the hope that they will learn something from her. In the last quarter of the novel we learn more about her and the mythology of her tribe. Some readers may find the shift from historical fact into mythological fantasy a little bit jarring but Simmons has clearly done his research and manages to knit the two worlds together in a satisfying, if somewhat strange conclusion.
With a great cast of characters and a literally chilling setting, it is all too easy to get deeply involved in this novel. And that's the problem. As readers faced with this enormous book we are expected to invest both a significant amount of time and emotion to get through it. Just as the crew are faced with the prospect of a long, slow death on the ice, so too does the reader face a similarly excruciating ordeal as they find themselves slogging through page after page of unrelenting misery. Simmons is such an able writer he has no difficulty grabbing our attention and once he's got us, he doesn't let us go. For hundreds of pages we are put through an emotional meat-grinder only to be spat out at the end. “The Terror” is a brilliantly executed novel but one that doesn't cosset or pander to the reader. It's a long, lonely trek but well worth the journey.
Hereward L.M. Proops