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Book Review - The Terror by Dan Simmons

Long Winter's Night

The Terror
Dan Simmons

Published by Little, Brown and Company

Review by W. R. Greer

On May 19, 1845, two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, set sail from England in search of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. Led by Sir John Franklin, the expedition's ships were equipped with several layers to their wooden hulls, and they had steam boilers that would both help keep the inner decks warm and improve the ships' ice breaking capabilities. They were stocked with enough provisions to last three years, which could be extended to last a few more years than that if they were rationed. Many of the officers and crew were veterans of Arctic and Antarctic exploration and were prepared to spend a winter or two locked in the grip of the ice. The ships were last seen in July of that year. They were never seen again and no survivors were ever found.

In The Terror, author Dan Simmons creates a fictional narrative of what may have happened to The Terror and The Erebus and their crews. He has re-created, in stark and chilling detail, the frozen hell where these men suffered. The novel begins in October, 1847 with both ships locked in the ice about a mile apart. Captain Francis Crozier of The Terror has taken command of the expedition after Sir John Franklin's death. Franklin's own arrogance has led them astray and while they expected to spend at least one winter locked in ice, the crews are looking at spending a third winter in the ice after a summer where the seas never melted. The Erebus is damaged and may not be seaworthy if the ice does melt. Six months of darkness is about to begin, with winter nights where the temperature is usually colder than -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Coal supplies, which are used to keep the men just warm enough so that they don't freeze to death, are running low. The ships are not just locked into the ice; they're covered in ice and snow. One evening, Crozier inspects the conditions on the deck of The Terror:

Crozier turns slowly. His eyelashes are already rimmed with ice, and his upper lip is crusted with frozen breath and snot. The men have learned to keep their beards tucked far under their comforters and sweaters, but frequently they must resort to hacking away hair that has frozen to their clothing. Crozier, like most of the officers, continues to shave every morning, although, in the effort to conserve coal, the "hot water" his steward bring him tends to be just barely melted ice, and shaving can be painful business.
One of the many things Dan Simmons does extremely well in The Terror is the re-creation of life aboard the ships and the sea ice of the arctic. It is a world filled with natural terror of the bitter cold, the ice that continuously shifts, cracks and explodes, rations that are barely enough to sustain the men, and lightning storms that sweep over the ice during the summer. Into this terror, he adds one more horrific element, a monster so terrible that the men just call it "The Terror." A creature more terrible than anything they could imagine is killing the men. It's much larger than a polar bear, it moves effortlessly about the ice and, at times, through the ice, and it possesses the intelligence to track them and the malice to both terrorize and murder them. If the elements don't kill them, the creature will.

The other foreign element in their midst is a young Esquimaux woman they've christened Lady Silence. They've accidentally killed her male companion, perhaps her father or husband, and she has now made her own room in a small section of The Terror. Lady Silence has no tongue, although they'd be unable to understand her if she did. She moves effortlessly and silently to and from the ship, disappearing for days at a time, and never seeming to suffer from the cold or hunger.

The Terror is told from the perspective of many of its characters, although Captain Crozier and the surgeon, Dr. Goodsir, tend to dominate the chapters. This approach serves several purposes. Following Captain Crozier's thoughts and actions allows the reader to understand the difficult command decisions he had to make daily as well as his fierce determination to survive. Through him we see the mindset of the British naval officer class, although Crozier was Irish and that placed limitations on his prestige and career, but we also see all that comprises commanding the ships and the expedition itself. Every day on the ice, Crozier faced a multitude of decisions that dealt with everything from how to ration supplies, how to protect the ships, and how to keep morale from deteriorating into possible mutinous conditions. Crozier, dogged by his own alcoholism and self-doubt at times, is one of the heroic figures in this novel, refusing to surrender to the elements and refusing to let down the men in his command.

The chapters from the other officers and crew serve as a counterbalance to Crozier's perspective. Most of the men were proud members of the Royal Navy. They understood their roles and accepted the suffering and consequences that accompanied Arctic exploration. Dr. Goodsir's chapters often are the most touching and devastating, as he has the most interaction with the sick, the injured, the dead, and the dying. He treats the men as they deal with frostbite, he amputates dead extremities, and struggles with his limited abilities to treat their malnutrition, scurvy, and a mysterious poisoning that seems to be coming from the new method of supplying ships with canned goods. Unfortunately, the Royal Navy contracted the supply of canned goods to the lowest bidder, who used cheap lead solder to close the cans. This has not only led to many of the cans containing spoiled food, but to lead poisoning, which is also slowly killing the men.

For a novel where the ending is known—no survivors—and the crew begin to die horrible deaths, whether from the elements, the monster, scurvy, lead poisoning, or even their own treachery, it's possible to ask before reading The Terror, "What's the point?" The Terror defies categorization. The addition of the preternatural monster would lend it to the horror genre, but the creature is just one element of the horror that visits these men. It disappears for long periods of time, only to resurface at inopportune times to inflict its violence on the men. Yet its violence almost pales in comparison to other horrors the men face. Death by the creature is swift, whereas death by the elements, scurvy, or lead poisoning is slow, agonizing, and merciless. As the novel progresses, whether the creature actually exists versus some mass hysterical manifestation by the crew or some allegorical machinations by the author remains unclear.

As a work of historical fiction, Dan Simmons has not just expertly rendered life aboard a 19th-century Royal Navy ship, but the mindsets of the officers and crew on those ships, and their pride and confidence that they can overcome whatever obstacles are placed in front of them. The roles of the different members of the crew are described within the story lines, and the overreaching competence of these men to do whatever is necessary under any conditions adds to their heroic struggle to survive. At the same time, their pride and misunderstanding of the Arctic world helps seal their doom. While looking upon the few Esquimaux they encounter as backward savages, the Esquimaux know how to survive in the Arctic. They know how to find food while the British sailors are starving to death.

Dan Simmons also approaches The Terror as a literary effort. The invention of the creature conjures parts of the Beowulf epic. At one point, the crews of the ship stage a celebration patterned after Poe's Masque of Red Death, and Simmons' portrayal of that night on the ice is done with devastating effect. What rings the truest, though, and what elevates this novel above the horror or historical fiction genres, is Dan Simmon's portrayal of the men. His expert re-creation of the era, his chilling recounting of the terrors the men faced locked in their battle with the ice, and his introduction of the monster that slays men's souls, all serve as the foundation for a story about men doing all they can to retain their humanity while facing their own demise. Nothing stands out in this novel more than these heroic, yet flawed men, refusing to go quietly into the long winter's night. The answer to the "What's the point" query when approaching this book is that Dan Simmons has given us a novel about hope in the face of certain death.

The Terror is a gripping, compelling novel where the men of The Erebus and The Terror encounter horrors that would try any man's soul. It's a long novel, 769 pages, but it never falters, and by its end, even the roles of the creature and Lady Silence are understood. Somehow in the face of certain death, Dan Simmons manages to find a way to make us care about the men who never returned. This is an exceptionally good novel.

Copyright © 2007

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