In which we check out the books everyone else did years ago
944 pages, Bantam
Audiobook narrated by Tom Sellwood
Review by Pat Black
A bit like with Wolf Hall, you might to avoid Wikipedia if you want to go through this book unspoiled.
I still think of Dan Simmons as an up n’ comer, hailed in banner quotes by Clive Barker and Stephen King as the next big name in horror. Then I realise that this happened 30 years ago.
In fact, Simmons is probably better known for his SF output, particularly the Hyperion series which has now attained classic status. Unexpectedly, The Terror marked a horror comeback for him, a bestseller that was turned into a well-received TV series. Its success, and that of its adaptation, must have been a lovely surprise. It is rare for a horror book not written by Stephen King to make such an impact; in fact I’d be tempted to call it a throwback to the horror boom of the 1980s, which spawned Simmons in the first place.
The Terror of the title is HMS Terror, one of two real-life British ships dispatched to find the north-west passage in the Arctic in the 1840s. But this is a strictly fictionalised account of that genuine story of hardship and tragedy in the tundra.
That’s because The Terror also refers to a monster - an immense predator, bigger and fiercer than a polar bear, which picks off the men aboard the ship after it becomes stuck fast in the ice.
The other ship in the expedition, HMS Erebus, is the lead vessel in the journey, commanded by Sir John Franklin. At the helm of its sister ship the Terror is Captain Francis Crozier, an experienced hand from a modest Irish background who gained his commission the hard way. He has to help Sir John keep command of all those men on board both icebound ships, with the big freeze showing no sign of relenting, their precious stores of food and coal slowly diminishing, and a monster stalking and demolishing them.
Taken purely as a historical novel, The Terror is beautifully detailed. There’s not one nook or cranny of the ships and life aboard them that goes unexplored. As a result this is a long, long book, the longest I’ve read in ages - but I suppose it had to be. It did drag in places. This is no fault of the author’s, just mine as a slovenly reader who is pressed for time these days. There are a lot of men’s deaths to be described, and it would do a disservice to hurry over their lives and temperaments before we get to their flesh and bones.
Personal conflicts and resentments build during the ship’s miserable years stuck fast. About halfway through, when Captain Crozier finally gives the men the order to abandon ship, these animosities turn deadly, as sour elements look to usurp his command.
The ill health and squalor of the men as they succumb to scurvy and starve to death is gone into in some detail. That alone is not for the squeamish; the bleeding orifices, the fallen teeth, the lost hair, the discharge, the grim bodily functions… man the sick buckets, lads! And of course, there are the awful effects of sub-zero temperatures: frostbite, lost limbs, gangrene, and the unforgettable detail of exposed teeth exploding in the ultra-frigid air.
What sets The Terror apart from any other novel of survival in one of the planet’s harshest environments is, of course, its creature. At first it is mistaken for an immense polar bear, but the men come to realise that it’s much bigger, much smarter, and much more aggressive than regular specimens of ursus maritimus. Bullets do not seem to harm the monster, and any attempts to ambush it or entrap it in a killing zone are easily thwarted.
It doesn’t take long for the men to become superstitious about their predator – and with good reason, because it is a supernatural being. This is a detail I didn’t like. I’d have preferred it to have been a natural enemy for the men to contend with, something that they might be able to kill. But this weird element is consistent with the lore of the Inuit population the sailors encounter, particularly that of the most problematic character in the book: the only woman on board HMS Terror, Lady Silence.
She is given this name owing to the fact she has lost her tongue at some point in life. A hunting party brings her on board after they mistakenly open fire on her and an Inuit man - possibly her father, possibly her husband. She takes refuge aboard the ship, and is given her own quarters by Crozier, for obvious reasons. It soon becomes apparent she can steal away and come back on board as she pleases, mystifying the captain and one or two interested suitors.
Of course, a big bunch of men crammed aboard an icelocked ship would take a very close interest in Lady Silence. So does the author. This brings us to an uncomfortable point.
For a book chiefly concerning men trying to survive in the Arctic, The Terror’s early section is cram-packed with nudie women. Not just Lady Silence, who has the habit of wearing nothing beneath her furs (which she often removes as cross-eyed sailors pass by a crack in the door). There are also love affairs recalled in flashback by the men, particular Captain Crozier, whose heart was broken before his mission to the Arctic. There are one or two other recollections, too, which help keep the boys warm at night.
The level of detail here does have the potential to disturb. It’s not quite at the level of “she boobed boobily down the stairs, boobs akimbo”, but I have to say it’s uncomfortably close. Simmons describes the women’s bodies, particularly their breasts, in almost microscopic detail. It’s closer to an anatomical textbook than a page-turning chiller.
If these descriptions were visual art, then they’d be macro photography. Skin would be shot at so great a magnification it would no longer be identifiable as such, like the surface of a barren alien planet, stretched and pitted beyond recognition. Individual strands of pubic hair would be rendered as the length, girth and texture of a tree from the Cretaceous period. Outcroppings of areolae would be indistinguishable from ancient battlements worn smooth by time and the elements, or the crumbling peaks of a mountain on Mars.
“Areolae” is a key word, in fact. It’s a signal. Whenever it appears in fiction, it’s probably more detail than you need - unless you’re reading an honest one-hander.
Maybe I’m being disingenuous. This is, after all, the male gaze; this is what many men want to look at, and this is their feelings when they do so. Perhaps to turn away from that, or to pretend it doesn’t exist, is fundamentally dishonest, whether in fiction or in life. There is a point where it causes harm, though. That point can sometimes be charted in the troublesome waters between the law of the land and personal tolerance.
It all depends on the reader. Some might see this exhaustive, obsessive rendering of male lust and objectification as an example of much that is wrong with the world. Others might see it as no big deal, even perfectly normal. I would say that after the third or fourth densely detailed description of a woman’s naked body, I was cringing. “Here we go again.”
Back to less problematic content, now: violence. The creature’s rampages take me right back to the books I read as a lad – honest-to-goodness monster mashing of the first order. I even detected a bit of Guy N Smith in there, as the white-furred behemoth flicks heads off shoulders the way you might launch a loose pea off a dinner table.
It’s soon established that the creature isn’t merely ripping the men apart for food. It seems to be doing so out of malice, taking particular pleasure in lopping off heads and leaving them on display for the search parties to pick out with their lanterns. One section, in which the men attempt to cheer themselves up on New Year’s Eve by setting up a masked carnival in a special marquee on the ice, is clearly set up for the creature to intervene - and it does. From this section onwards, the hopes of the expedition crumble.
Simmons grapples with one or two issues relevant to modern times. First of all, there’s snobbery. Crozier is a competent, tough, canny man, but owing to his Irish background he will never be accepted as a gentleman in British society. We might wonder how much has changed in the 170-odd years since.
Then there’s a very Melville-esque attitude to organised religion – questioning who or what we worship, and why. An epigram at the start of the book draws a clear line between Simmons’ monster and Melville’s white whale. Lady Silence and the creature seem to have a kind of spiritual symbiosis, one the master and one the servant. And the men, who readily take part in Christian observance on the decks of both ships at first, develop an atavistic worship of polar bears, believing it might offer protection from the creature. Even Captain Crozier, who cracks down hard on this, can’t seem the resist deviating from the norm himself, quoting from the “Book of Leviathan” in his sermons to the men, rather than the bible.
Things become more brutal once the men are out on the ice, dragging supplies, injured shipmates and boats on sleds, looking for the leads that will take them to open water and a chance of survival. All the while, something hunts them.
Of course, cannibalism isn’t far away. In one delicious section, the ship’s surgeon Dr Goodsir attempts to put the men off any idea of carving up their colleagues for supper by describing in great detail what must be done in order to split a man’s bones down to the juicy marrow. Even as he speaks, he is shocked to find that he is drooling.
It’s disturbing to find that the two main human villains of the book are gay – “MORE PROBLEMATIC MATERIAL TO STARBOARD, CAP’N” – but Simmons balances this later on, clumsily, by having a “good” gay couple.
In fairness, Simmons is only telling it like it was - the 1840s were not enlightened times when it came to sexuality, and any men caught having sex with each other on board one of her majesty’s ships could face dire punishments, possibly even death. Something else for the poor blokes to worry about, as they spend years shut up in a ship in the Arctic with only other men to cuddle.
There are several well-executed shock deaths, particularly near the end as the survivors mutiny and seek to return to Terror camp, against their captain’s orders. But for me, among the most dreadful things about the men’s plight were the missed chances of salvation.
Hey, there’s some of the indigenous population - let’s make friends, they might give us some food and show us the way to go! Oh…
Hey, there’s some open water, let’s get back to camp and tell the rest of the guys about it! Oh…
It’s an irony too far - as if Captain Scott bid his men farewell, stepped out of his tent, tripped over a sign reading “Rescue This Way” and fell through a hole in the ice… just as a ship appeared on the horizon.
There is a very strange ending to this book. I can’t spoil it of course, but it took us into unusual territory, changing from a story of grim military survival into one more akin to Robinson Crusoe, augmented by the myths, legends and spirituality of the Inuit people. The ending was satisfying, but I wonder if more brutal editors might have cut it by roughly 80 pages.
By the time The Terror reached its conclusion, I felt a bit exhausted (though not quite so malnourished). I’d had it on in the car since the start of last winter. The irony was particularly grim as I drove through the howling wind and sleet of January while I listened to a story about a bunch of blokes stuck in the freezing cold. We’re getting into summer now, and it’s only just done. Thanks to my commute now being reduced, it took me a lot longer to get through the 28 and a half hours’ listening than I’d have liked.
Great credit must go to Tom Sellwood for his vocal performance on the audio version, particularly his note-perfect take on the myriad British accents aboard ship. Because of this, we never once lose the place where the many characters are concerned.
A special mention must be made of his game attempt at singing Inuit songs, in falsetto as a woman. That’s dedication.
Time spent on board The Terror was never time wasted, and I always looked forward to returning to find out what happened. It’s a good, big, meaty novel - like the defrosted thigh of a caulker’s mate - and much like a good dinner, I missed it when it was gone.