Been a bit slack on the book reviews lately: A combination of holiday hangover and a series of illnesses pulled me out of my flow. Mostly recovered now, though.
Since we’re finally well into our winter weather here in Chicago, it seems appropriate to write about a book that makes you feel as though a malevolent, icy hand is running up the length of your spine as you’re reading it. That book is The Terror by Dan Simmons. A sort of companion piece to Drood (the first thing ever reviewed on this site), The Terror is another story that adds supernatural fictional elements to actual events experienced by actual people.
In this case, it’s the disastrous Franklin expedition in the Arctic that took place during the 1840s. In the real Franklin expedition, two wooden (!) ships — one of which was the HMS Terror — left Britain in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the massive, rocky islands and ice-choked channels and seas of northern Canada. (The ships were fitted with external iron plates and steam engines to help push through some of the ice.) More than 100 men took part in that expedition, which was not properly provisioned and prepared for, and they all died due to extreme cold, starvation or illness, and it’s believed that some of them may have resorted to cannibalism to stave off their ultimate, unpleasant end.
Simmons’ book offers an interesting spin on this: What if there was something else involved with these men meeting their doom? Like a giant, ancient, practically un-killable Inuit monster-god that looks something like a polar bear with the head of an aardvark? As ridiculous as that sounds, the author makes it seem quite plausible and terrifying. This thing stalks the men across the plains and crevasses of the Arctic icepack for months, picking them off a few at a time, and their fear of it becomes the reader’s as well.
But as with Drood, Simmons doesn’t just make the monster the sole focus of the horror. He also goes into explicit detail on the well-below-freezing conditions of the Arctic, and how the sailors would dress in several layers of soggy, fusty wool clothes to try to stay warm. Hypothermia, anyone?
(I should mention here that I read The Terror a couple of years ago, during the most miserable winter I’ve ever lived through. It wasn’t particularly snowy, but ye Gods, was it ever cold! It was not uncommon for the mercury to fall below zero, and severe winds made it even worse. And it wasn’t like this for an occasional day or two. This went on for weeks. As I proceeded through this book’s vivid descriptions of the frozen wastes of the north, the bleak landscape and freezing temperatures around me made me feel at times like I was living it along with the characters.)
In addition to the cold, there was also the drudgery experienced by the sailors of the expedition. When the ships were frozen in place, these men often had to continue the expedition by dragging supplies over the ice on heavy, cumbersome wooden sledges. Their reward at the end of the day for all this laborious work was a can of salted, putrid meat and — if they were really lucky — a cup of rum.
The most chilling thing in the story, however, is not the hardship or the cold or even the beast. It’s the treachery of people. Simmons brilliantly sets The Terror up as a classic man vs. nature tale, but then shifts the plot toward the machinations of a few malevolent members of the ships’ crews. The schemes of these “sea lawyers” become the main source of conflict in the story.
There’s a great deal more in this nearly 800-page book, including portrayals of the notoriously stifling English class system, Inuit mythology, and telepathy. In spite of its length and breadth, though, it’s a quick, engaging read. And there are some real page-turning scenes, such as when one of the sailors performs some acrobatic maneuvers on the masts of the HMS Terror to evade the monster. It got a little preachy at the end — not that the message was bad, but it kind of took me out of the story. That small thing can be forgiven in an otherwise great book, though.
So check out The Terror, if you dare. But you may want to wait until winter’s over to pick it up.