Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
That’s about the only word that comes to mind with regards to Dan Simmons’ book, The Terror: A Novel. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best novels Mr. Simmons has ever written. I have it listed in my top five horror novels of all time and believe me, this is a horror novel.
Before reading the book, I remember seeing a documentary on the 1845 Franklin Expedition. I watched it with great interest, wondering how Mr. Simmons was going to add to the tragic story with his novel. This is where the horror comes in because the creature that wipes out most of the expedition’s crew is anything but ordinary.
I’d read this novel each night before going to bed for a couple of hours and end up having bloody nightmares about the Arctic, the cold, the sounds inside the ships, and the strange, murderous entity lurking out on the ice, patiently waiting for each of the crew members to make a careless mistake. I don’t generally have nightmares, but I did with this book, which shows the utter craftsmanship that was used by Mr. Simmons in its writing.
Before I move on to a brief synopsis about the story, let me just say that I’ve been reading the novels of Dan Simmons since the late eighties and the publication of The Song of Kali. Mr. Simmons is one of those unique authors who can write with true excellence in any genre he chooses–science fiction, horror, suspense, hard-boiled crime, mainstream, and historical/horror. I’ve never been disappointed with a novel by Mr. Simmons, and when he sets his mind to it, he can literally scare the living daylights out of you. Few writers today are capable of doing that to a reader.
The Terror deals with the two ships and 126-man expedition into the Arctic Circle region in 1845 by Sir John Franklin, who hoped to find the infamous Northwest Passage. In September of that year, the two ships (H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror) found themselves trapped in a pack of crushing ice with no visible means of escape. There was no worry at that time since both ships were heavily loaded with coal for heat, canned goods and salt pork for food, and the belief that the ice would eventually thaw and allow them to search for the waterway that would carry them to Alaska and then Russia.
That wasn’t to be.
The ice never thawed, and the ships and men were trapped for three incredibly long years with dwindling supplies, poisonous canned food, the illness of scurvy takings its toll, and the freezing temperatures that averaged -50 Below Zero. But, that wasn’t the worse of it by far. Something roamed the ice at night that was both vicious and cunningly intelligent, and it had a distinct taste for human flesh. This uncanny creature began to slowly kill the members of the expedition one and two at a time, including the Commander of the crew, Sir John Franklin. When Franklin was killed, the duty of saving the remaining men fell upon the shoulders of Captains James Fitzjames and Francis Crozier, but it’s Crozier who takes the lead, having a strong instinct for survival and an intrinsic authority for leading men. Crozier realized that the only way to escape their perilous predicament was to walk out the way they’d come, across hundreds of miles of frozen ice while being stalked by something that doesn’t want them to get away.
As the Nova television show explained, no one from the expedition was ever seen again. But, what happened to everyone? This is what Dan Simmons tries to convey with his stark imagination and monstrous size novel. He gives his version of what might have transpired with the 126 men of the Franklin Expedition, and it isn’t a pretty one. Though I’m aware of the tremendous amount of research that Mr. Simmons had to do in order to write this novel, the book is so damn good and detail oriented that it’s like he was there himself. I could feel the unbelievable cold to my bones, the hunger and weariness of the men, the pungent smells and the hundreds of strange sounds below deck on both vessels, and the utter terror that was out on the ice just waiting for its chance to wreak havoc.
During the course of reading The Terror, you will be there in the Arctic Circle experiencing the same trials and tribulations as the rest of the expedition. You’ll know what it’s like to be hunted, yet never knowing from what direction the attack will come. You’ll slowly come away with a clearer understanding of what it truly means to be afraid. As an example, there’s one scene where the mysterious creature gets below deck on the Erebus and hunts the members of its crew through the pitch-black darkness with screams of terror ringing out from every direction.
Mr. Simmons captures the atmosphere and sense of desolation perfectly. He brings all of the characters to life. There’s going to be those you care for and those you hate. Captain Francis Crozier, of course, is the hero of the expedition, but even he isn’t prepared for the frightening challenges that face both him and his men. The Terror is certainly movie material. All through the novel, I kept seeing the British actor, Daniel Craig, as Francis Crozier. If I were Dan Simmons, I’d have my agent send Mr. Craig a copy of the book.
The Terror by Dan Simmons is highly recommended to those who love vividly written stories with a strong dose of horror thrown in for good measure.