I have the distinct impression that I may have read Dan Simmons before, years and years and years ago in my high school days when all I read were horror novels. Looking through his novels on the shelf, I came upon a few early pocket paperbacks whose covers seemed to strike faint chords in ye olde memory. Nothing specific. In those days, I chewed through pulpy, schlocky horror novels about one every two days.
It was in fact a cover that led me to this novel, though circuitously. At a chain book store for the first time in months without a child in tow, The Wife and I perused the latest releases. Though it is said one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, one often enough makes a purchase based on such a slender reed. In this case it was Simmons' follow up to The Terror, a Dickensian sized tome entitled Drood whose moody, vaguely threat sodden cover that made me pause. The book's description, that slick marketing material known as the jacket copy, fascinated me.
At any rate, and this is all rather digressive, the name stuck with me and when I saw the trade paperback cover for The Terror with its likewise ethereal, menacing cover, I picked it up immediately. The jacket copy describing the novel as an historical horror novel made me pause and recall the great pleasure I had in reading The Historian. The epigraphical quoting of Melville's Moby Dick on the first page also helped the book sink its hooks into me. Doomed Royal Navy expedition to find the Northwest Passage? How could I not thrill to the obvious futility of such a story? An historical novel that promised rich, period details while at the same time delivering on the pulse racing plotting of a thriller?
How could I not buy such a novel?
I'm not much given to buying novels full price anymore, especially on authors I'm not already in love with, preferring the library or the acquisition of armloads of cut-rate classics from used bookshops. However, I am immensely pleased to have taken the plunge on Simmons' historical shocker.
The novel follows the somewhat true story of the two British ships the HMS Erebus and The Terror captained as they were by Sir John Franklin (the fleet commander) and Captain Francis Crozier respectively, as they chugged their way in pursuit of the elusive Northwest Passage. The marvel of the British Navy at the time, the two ships had double hulls and metal plated exteriors, yet we learn soon enough that the best of man's contrivances is still no match for the extremes nature can dish up. After leaving their last outpost, the two ships and their crew were never heard from again. Into that gap comes this novel.
We begin, as it were, in the middle of things (fitting enough for a book that makes occasional and pointed references to the Greeks): two ships locked solid in polar ice, some mile or so distance between them. We begin, as it were in the middle of things: a formless beast of some kind has been stalking the 126 men of this expedition, carrying them off into the all-encompassing near endless nights. It is savage, it is huge, it is quick and it is, most frightening of all, intelligent.
Simmons keeps his novel shifting, hopping from one man to another on the crew, giving us excerpts from a junior surgeon Dr. Goodsir's diary then in the next chapter giving us insights into the mind of Captain Crozier, the novel's remarkable "hero" (for want of a better term), as well as Captain Franklin, Captain James Fitzjames and others. Perhaps the most exciting chapter finds Ice Master Blanky fleeing from the monster across the rigging and masts of the ships, leaping "like a monkey" and otherwise eluding the beast. Repeatedly throughout that chapter I found myself alternately grinning and cheering on Blanky while holding my breath in fearful expectation.
Simmons does little to differentiate the styles of the narration for each of these characters, yet they nevertheless are so well drawn that each man becomes indelible. The melancholic, practical while still romantic alcoholism of Crozier. The clever efforts to save the men of Lieutenant Irving. The general cultural arrogance and blinkered haughty mien of Sir John in his officer's prerogatives is perhaps the most significant factor in the men's fate. Yet even in the chapter where he meets his death, Simmons writes with such feeling for his characters that we sympathize with Sir John and mourn his loss.
What's wonderful about the book is that while the issue of the monster looms large within the novel, it is only periodically brought into the story. The rest of the time Simmons delivers a wonderful historical novel about the nature of the British Navy of the time and the ships. Dr. Goodsir, during a late chapter man-hauling across the ice, is given an enlightening disquisition on the various kinds of smaller boats attached to the expedition ships. The chapter is folksier than Melville's educational asides, but it still evokes him greatly and explains why the men must haul so many different and redundant seeming boats along with them.
If there were worries I had while reading the novel, the two biggest would have been a cheesily used monster -- which Simmons handled expertly, never allowing the creature any time in the bright lights of the stage -- and that the shadow of Melville would fall too heavily over a modern novel aboard ship. Again, Simmons effectively portrays life on Her Majesty's Ships in all their brutal squalor while managing to evoke Melville without being overshadowed. Every sailor's curse, every grimy blanket, the deprivations of the ships quarters, the specific strains of Arctic expeditions, each wart and wrinkle is there along with the kind of heroic nobleness of character the Navy's history seemed to breed as well as the authoritarianism and institutionalized arrogance.
Clocking in at some 784 pages, The Terror reads like a much smaller novel. The author very effectively moves between flashbacks that get us to the point of their third winter trapped in the ice and the misery of their current predicament. Chapters filled with excitement and horrors break up stretches of the men's biographies and their duties on board. I read with a growing sense of despair as each new difficulty resolved itself in a worse fashion than before, as each month brought some new conflict and struggle to the men. It is a grinding down of the men both in numbers and in spirit, and Simmons is as unflinching in abusing his characters as the Arctic winds.
Not bad enough that they are trapped and hunted? Simmons allows for poor soldering of their tinned food giving way to putrefied meats and vegetables. The appearance of scurvy among the men? The lemon juice's anti-scorbutic effectiveness diminishes. Winter conditions worse than expected? Wasted coal used in trying to force an ice passage leads to shortages which leads to only the minimum of heating below decks. A monster hunts the men, ripping their limbs and their heads and their entrails from their bodies? Why not add a mutinous Caulker's Mate to the crew backed by his simple, gigantic lover.
Perhaps the only portion of the novel where the action sagged considerably was near the end when we are treated to a couple chapters on native mythology for Arctic tribes. We are given a background on the monster which takes some of the mystery and fright out of the thing, reducing it in my mind. At the same time, we bog down in creation mythos that disturbingly jar the reader out of the desperation of the preceding tale. While this is necessary to get Simmons to the ending of the novel -- satisfying in its own rights -- it had the distinct feel of a documentation dump, the missing pieces you needed to make sense of parts of the story. It had been better done had it been spaced throughout the novel in the form of notes on the Arctic tribes from the ship's library or a grizzled old salt explaining the native peoples to a younger crewmen.
Still, in a nearly 800 page novel, ten or so pages that don't work feels like I'm reaching for something to complain about. Simmons book is a taut, fearful reading experience, a horror novel for adults and not just the child inside you. It'd been quite some time since I'd read a novel so engrossingly that I found myself surprised that nearly a hundred pages had been covered in one sitting. This book delivered that experience repeatedly. Simmons' The Terror has delivered so profoundly that I have cleared my reading list's top spots to cover Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood just so I can get on to Simmons' latest, Drood, that much quicker.