19 August 2009

Book review: The Terror

The Terror
By Dan Simmons (2007)

Interested to know where I dredged up the idea for my recent essay on scurvy in fiction? Here it be, mateys…

Once upon a time, and a not very good time it was, two ships filled with British, Scottish, and Irish explorers set out from sunny England to find the Northwest Passage. None of them returned. And to this day we really don’t know what happened to these poor souls. They probably froze to death, starved, perished from scurvy, or ate each other. The End.

Oh, and possibly a giant ice-monster stalked and killed some of them. The End.

Ah, but such a mystery never “The Ends,” at least not when we have historical and speculative fiction to fill in the gaps for us.

How many human lives total were thrown away in the pursuit to find the Northwest Passage? Incalculable, I’m sure, but with the famous Franklin Expedition that left England aboard two ships in 1845, we at least have the specific number of one hundred and twenty-nine dead. But other specifics remain elusive to this day. Numerous recovery expeditions from 1848 until the present day have crawled over King William Island in northern Canada trying to unlock the mystery of the doomed sailing of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror of the Discovery Service. The recovery of artifacts, journals, and bodies has revealed some of the fate of the crews of the two ships after they were locked into the ice near Ross Strait, but of course we will never know the full details. After suffering through two consecutive winters aboard the ships without a thaw, the men abandoned the vessels (both of which were most likely no longer sea-worthy and therefore bound in sink in a thaw) in April 1848. Dragging boats overland, they tried to get to open water over King William Island. A mixture of exposure, scurvy, tuberculosis, tainted tinned food, and starvation most likely killed every single one of them. Knife-marks on some of the recovered bones from a 1992 excavation of one of the campsites suggest that cannibalism played a part near the end. (The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of what’s known about the lost expedition.)

Numerous nonfiction works have explored the fate of the Erebus and the Terror—but almost from the ship’s first vanishing, fiction writers have leaped into the unforgiving ice to offer their versions of what might have happened in the lonely Arctic wastes. Speculative fiction author Dan Simmons, best knows for the award-winning novels Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990), adds a supernatural horror slant to his version of the Franklin Expedition in his 2007 novel The Terror.

I hesitate in naming The Terror a flat-out work of horror. Judging from the sheer mass of the book (over 750 pages), there’s more to fill up the space than the dark fantasy aspects. It’s best to give the The Terror a hyphenate genre category: it’s an historical fiction-horror novel. Plus a touch of metaphysical dark fantasy, and I only mention that because I like the way it sounds.

Despite the complexity of the book’s historical presentation and the many other reasons that the sailors die in the frozen wastes, it’s the horror and fantasy content that will encourage most readers to pick up the book. I can sum up the speculative context in one sentence: there’s a monster on the snowy wastes killing off the men of the Terror and the Erebus. The sailors die from other causes as well (such as—surprise—scurvy), and there develops dangerous dissent in their ranks, but let’s be honest: mystery monsters just hog attention.

Some readers may find themselves disappointed, because a large chunk of the novel details the more realistic life of an Artic expedition in the mid-nineteenth century. In this way, The Terror is a touch like Moby Dick… there’s a huge monster, but also plenty of shipboard daily activity. I personally didn’t feel let down from this historical focus: The Terror contains the right balance of realistic adventure with elements of supernatural dread. I only found myself a disappointed near the ending, when Simmons leaps into the more spiritual side of the story as the history slips away. The Terror doesn’t end the way I expected, and that’s a positive in some ways, but always a touch negative as well. Considering the utter hell that the men on the expedition experience—levels of deprivation and misery that are hard to fathom, although Simmons is excellent at inflicting them viscerally on us—there’s almost no way the book can reach a satisfactory conclusion when it strides off into the speculative arena unless the author produces something spectacular with that monster of his. And I don’t think he quite manages it.

The semi-deflating finale aside, The Terror is still a gripping work of historical re-creation and adventure. Simmons’s attention to period and naval detail and his portraits of the men trapped in the ice make the book compulsively readable even when the mystery beast isn’t shredding men and staining the snow crimson. The monster vanishes for stretches, but Simmons never risks boring the reader. A few of the attacks are astonishingly written set-pieces, such as a pursuit through the Terror’s rigging, and a Carnivale on the ice meant to cheer up the men that which turns into a literal re-staging of “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Simmons tells the story through chapters alternating between the different character’s POVs. The characters’ names appear as the chapter titles, along with latitude and longitude information, which adds verisimilitude but nothing else. The majority of the chapters come from the view of F. R. M. Crozier, captain of the Terror, who is the most multi-layered figure in the novel. His early chapters are written in present tense, which helps clarify their relations to the intervening chapters from the POV of expedition leader John Franklin, all of which occur before Crozier’s view. Simmons appropriately chooses to begin the story with the two ship already a year in the ice and the monster making attacks, but Franklin’s chapters and the diary entries from one of the surgeons, Goodsir, give readers the backstory. This means the danger of the tale gets going immediately. A long build of the two ships sailing to the Arctic and then getting stuck would have lost most readers, so this weave of past and present was a good authorial choice. Once Franklin’s chapters catch up to Crozier’s, the book moves in standard past tense, and Crozier shares the book principally with Goodsir, who also emerges as one of the strongest—certainly the most ethical—of the men on the expedition.

As events progress and the situation turns dire, more characters join in on the narration, some for only a single chapter explaining their demise. The juggling of the POVs is an aspect that Simmons handles deftly. He’s a seasoned writer with experience creating multi-character interwoven narratives (Hyperion is a perfect example) and it shows. A few of the one-offs POV chapters are immensely moving or horrifying.

Aside from Goodsir and Crozier, the characters who makes the biggest impression are the human “villain,” caulkers mate Cornelius Hickey, and the mute Inuit woman whom the men call “Silence.” Hickey grows slowly like an infection among the crew, added to piece by piece until he reaches a devilish deification. He even has a thuggish slow-witted muscle-bound sidekick. If The Terror were made into a film—something I would love to see, although it would make a tough sell to any studio—then Tim Roth should play Hickey, no question. It was impossible to put the actor out of my mind when I was reading about Hickey’s vileness. Silence, a beautiful native women (the book uses the then-current spelling of “Esquimaux” to describe her) is almost as much a mystery at the beast on the ice, and gives the touch of the other-worldly (not to mention a needed bit of femininity) to the story. And who ripped out her tongue by the roots?

And what about our monster, the reason that many people who often don’t read historical fiction will give The Terror a shot? There’s not much I can explain without spoilers, and actually Simmons provides only sketches of the menace anyway. The men of the two ships seem to lack an effective way of describing it. It’s an powerful literary beastie because it remains so elusive. Even though the story appears to offer an answer to its identity, I still don’t think it’s meant as a solution. I feel let down with the way the monster gets handled in the end, but I’m not unhappy with how Simmons handles the creature’s nature. It’s just mysterious enough, and also makes just enough full-blooded appearances to serve the right dollops of fright and gore for the novel.

Considering the book’s sheer length, it will have some padding and slow parts. Yet there are surprisingly few of these. Even Crozier’s memories to his failed romantic endeavors in England don’t slow the story to a full-stop. A period without the monster attacks still holds it own because the characters are going through the worst of the Arctic hell and splitting up amongst themselves. But readers should know that the naval details will sometimes freeze up parts of the story. There’s always a few surprises ahead, so keep trudging through the ice.

And drink your orange juice.