Review

The Terror

by Dan Simmons

In
May of 1845, two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, left England on
a projected three-year voyage under the leadership of noted
explorer John Franklin. Their mission? To find the fabled Northwest
Passage that would enable ship traffic to travel from the Atlantic
to the Pacific through icy waters north of Canada. They were
neither the first expedition to attempt this feat nor the last, but
their utter disappearance amid the Arctic islands has led to more
than 150 years of speculation about the nature of the men's
fate.

Hugo Award-winning novelist Dan Simmons has turned his accomplished
pen to this same task with THE TERROR. It turns out he's more than
up to the challenge of inventing a fictional fate for the doomed
mariners. His novel participates in a long line of Arctic-themed
literature, and fans of these other accounts will not be
disappointed. Simmons has clearly done his research, seamlessly
incorporating clues gleaned from recent forensic expeditions to the
site into his plot. All the elements of a multi-year Arctic voyage
are here --- the tedium and fear, the constant danger, the
consumption and the scurvy, the snow-blindness, the near-starvation
and the madness and cannibalism that result.

But Simmons has added his own unforgettable, bone-chilling element
to a story that could seem icy enough. Perhaps inspired by the name
of the HMS Terror, Simmons has invented a monster, a leviathan that
haunts the men from without as much as their own demons haunt them
from within. The men can't settle on what the thing is --- most
seem to think it resembles a gigantic polar bear, one that
possesses not only lethal claws and an insatiable appetite for
human flesh, but also a deadly intellect. Where did the beast come
from? Is its arrival connected to the appearance of the mute Inuit
woman, Silence, who is alternately lusted after and feared by the
sailors?

The answers become clearer when the (surviving) crew, led by the
novel's real protagonist, Captain Crozier, set out over the pack
ice on sledges when it's clear that the future on the ships is
untenable. Crozier himself, an eminently sensible but materially
unsuccessful Irishman, is cast as the foil to Franklin, whose
impracticality and refusal to leave behind the trappings of Western
society (including real china and gourmet food) is posited as part
of his downfall.

Throughout, Simmons's storytelling is practically flawless. For a
good chunk of the novel, readers (and sailors) are not sure whether
the creature stalking the ship is real or a figment of the men's
imagination. Only near the end is the beast's appearance explained
and rationalized in a way that makes perfect sense and gives it
near-cosmic importance (not an easy feat in an over-750-page book
that could have been dismissed as just a gory horror novel).
Historical facts and details are presented naturally and
painlessly, as when Crozier, in a psychic vision, correctly
foresees the years of follow-up expeditions that will search for
the party's remains.

In addition to advancing the plot quickly by shifting points of
view among various officers and crew, Simmons also brings certain
key scenes --- particularly the New Year's Carnivale --- to life
with imagery that will remain crystallized in readers' minds long
after they have managed to escape the icy prison that awaits
Franklin and his men.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

The Terror
by Dan Simmons

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 784 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316017442
  • ISBN-13: 9780316017442