Sir John Franklin, known as ‘the man who ate his shoes’ after his first failed expedition to the Arctic Circle to find the Northwest Passage, has been given one last chance, over twenty years later. Sir John leads an expedition of two vessels reinforced to withstand the crushing might of the ice – HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. While Sir John travels in the flagship Erebus, Captain Francis Crozier commands the Terror. But with no time at all after their arrival in the Arctic, three men are dead of consumption and the ships are trapped for the 1845-46 winter off Beechey Island. The next year they make little progress, finally reaching a standstill off King William Island, so close and yet so far, Sir John is sure, to the entry to the fabled and heartily desired North West Passage.
The Terror evokes with all the power and horror that Dan Simmons’ remarkable imagination can bring forth the cold desolation of the lives of approximately 150 men who are trapped within the ice, not for one year but for closer to three. History tells us that fate will not be kind to these men and so the novel resounds with the hollowness of their future and the desperation of their plight. You’d have thought that having to survive within these freezer ships and then cast out on the ice would be enough to contend with but the Franklin expedition is plagued by something else, the ‘thing’ that stalks them, trying to tunnel its way into their vessels, watching them from the ice, stealing men during the endless Arctic winter night, leaving their pieces to terrorise the minds of the rest of the crews.
The Arctic ice is a wide and open place, sea joining with ice into a great land mass, its horizon merging with the enormous sky, the seam hidden by fog, blizzards or whiteout. But The Terror reminds us of the opposite, its claustrophobia closes in, to cabins, sleeping bags, ships, boats and sledges, and every man has to deal with the psychological assault and physical discomfort of this winter imprisonment. Simmons presents the tale from numerous perspectives, notably, Franklin, Crozier, the surgeon Dr Goodsir (whose tale is told through extracts from his journal) as well as other officers and crew aboard the two ships. We are encouraged to align mostly with the officers but we do get to know several of the sailors aboard. The accounts come from different times, the past slowly joining with the present, present tenses becoming past. It’s a clever construction, bringing together optimism with the loss of hope.
The dangers that the men face on the winter ice are matched by the demons within themselves. Whether this increasing madness is a symptom of scurvy or not, it is plain that as much danger comes from humans as it does from whatever lurks out there on the ice, watching them. The Inuit girl who shadows them, Lady Silence, her tongue gnawed out at its base, is a reminder of the magical power of an environment that these Victorian men cannot control. The Terror is a frightening book because it is steeped in atmosphere and the chill of the Arctic. The entrapment, the increasing hunger and scurvy, all play tricks on the minds of these scared men, terrified out of their wits by the irregular and unpredictable assaults by the thing from the ice.
The Terror takes its time. It is a very long novel at almost one thousand pages. The narrative moves between men, between ships and across the months. The details reminds me of Moby Dick. We learn here about every level of a Victorian ice breaking vessel, its stocks, its crew, its codes, as well as the competition in London between explorers and captains. There are chapters of intense excitement when the violence overspills but for much of the time there is a mood of ominous imminent potential danger. The thing is out there, stalking the Terror, and it is never less than horrifying not least because it can’t always be seen.
But it’s not difficult to see the allegory of this novel, in the same way that it was evident in Moby Dick. True story it might be but this is the tale of a group of men entirely out of place, inflicting their presence on an environment – and local people – that doesn’t want it. The mentions of Darwin and his evolutionary theory remind us that the modern world is changing but that is irrelevant in the Arctic night. The tension and darkness increase, despite the brief glimpses of hope that glances at the unreliable horizon-skimming sun bring, the violence and horror press down harder on our shoulders. Madness threatens. Through it all we have the journey of Captain Crozier who perhaps more than anyone or anything, except the thing on the ice, forms the heart of this extraordinary novel.
Last year I read Dan Simmons’ The Abominable, a richly evocative account of an early ascent of Everest, equally frightening with its depiction of human and inhuman violence. The Abominable was one of my top three reads of 2013. The Terror, written a few years earlier, is no less powerful and is just as emotional, perceptive and frightening a read. I recommend them both completely, every bit as much as Dan Simmons’ superb Hyperion.