Written by: James Keen
“We have absolutely no concept of what lies ahead for us.” -The Abominable.
Dan Simmons returns to frozen climes again after his novel, ‘The Terror’, but the difference this time around is that this book is one that is much less concerned with the supernatural and more in exploring themes of obsession, betrayal and the often appalling nature of self-discovery.
Simmons opens the novel with an introduction that is not extraneous to the pages that follow, as so often such prefaces can prove to be. Told from the writer’s ‘experience’ meeting a dying old man in preparation for constructing an entirely different book, Simmons describes a set of circumstances that immediately begin blending the fictional with the factual. The author talks about his own initial doubts regarding the veracity of the retired climbers tale, but when he later receives a set of notebooks written by this Jacob Perry, long after his death, we are invited to take a literary ‘leap of faith’ and indulge in what is presented to the reader as the journals of a young American recounting his experience in the mid 1920’s of a perilous expedition to summit Mount Everest.
Using this ‘found journal’ narrative device, Simmons is able to craft a tale that distils a terrifying journey that is itself awash with technical detail, religious history and, certainly towards the close of the novel, a good portion of sanguinary violence. Simmons/Perry posit a story that, much like Simmons’ earlier work – specifically his novel ‘The Crook Factory’ – takes a great many liberties with historical fact shot through with a suspense dynamic that is, as always with Simmons, confident and assured. Equipment preparation, the dangers of injury, whether it be from opthalmia, frostbite or altitude sickness (“mountain lassitude”) are mixed in with the apparently meditative qualities of climbing, group paranoia and Tibetan-centric superstition.
The problems with Simmons’ narrative are that often the text is over-saturated with the technical side of climbing – there’s a great deal of mechanical minutia here; everything from the improvement of crampon boots, the developments in ice-axe technology, pitons, ascending grapples, ropes, goggles, oxygen tanks, clothing, heating implements and so on. The reader may very well feel that after finishing this they’d be quite au fait with the early Twentieth Century history of mountain climbing, which is no bad thing in itself, but it does become mildly wearying in places. Also, there’s the matter of exposition on the part of the author, which in places comes across as bizarrely clunky and artificial. There’s an event quite early on in this lengthy tome where a climbing test of sorts is set for Perry and his young French comrade, Jean Claude, that is so obvious in its foreshadowing of what will occur later in the book that it appears calculated and predictably elliptical.
Very much like the central narrative theme of the novel, this is a reading experience that approximates the idea of a long mountain trek as it’s really only in the last third of the book that Simmons flair for suspense really kicks in. Subsequently the pages fly by as the author summits his own admirably literary endeavour and gives the reader a shocking coda to ‘The Abominable’ that is perhaps not quite what the reader may be expecting.
This is a marvelous work of fiction from a writer who consistently delivers profound and intriguing works of fiction, but for those looking for a rather predictable scenario involving possibly supernatural elements they may feel somewhat short-changed here. The horrors here are far more insidious and thought-provoking than legendary mountain-dwelling creatures. A engagingly quixotic author whose work often incorporates disparate genres, he’s fashioned a splendidly riveting tale here that’s deeply affecting, beautifully written and diverting in the very best sense of the word.