It’s 1845 and two British ships, the Erebus and the Terror, have been commissioned to explore northernmost Canada in search of the Northwest Passage, a (mythical) route that would allow British ships to sail over the North Pole, thus bypassing America on the way to China, India, and other Far East countries.
But both ships have been marooned in the ice for over a year now, waiting for a summer thaw that has steadfastly refused to arrive. The brutal cold often reaches temperatures of eighty below zero. The dwindling supplies of coal are used to keep both ships at barely survivable temperatures. Hunting parties have been unsuccessful in finding fresh food, forcing the sailors to rely on canned food, much of which is poorly preserved and downright poisonous. Pressures from the ice are slowly breaking the ships apart. The isolation and terrible conditions are taking their toll on the crews’ well-being, and the Terror’s alcoholic captain is running out of whiskey. A rescue expedition is not expected, and if it was, would take months to arrive.
And the expedition has a greater problem. Some sort of monster is stalking them. At random intervals it takes a crew member. Sometimes the victims are never found. Sometimes what’s left of them is found, and sometimes those remains are even recognizable.
Dan Simmons’ take on what happened to the doomed Franklin Expedition is part fantasy, part history, part horror, and completely engrossing. Simmons had tried a similar melding of real-life and supernatural horrors in his debut novel Song of Kali, but that book was hampered by unlikable characters and a supernatural being that stepped too far into cliché. The Terror draws on Inuit mythology for the force that stalks the expedition. But at times that force almost takes second place to the predicament these men face: omnipresent cold, blinding glare from sun on snow, months of darkness, the difficulty that the cold and the harsh terrain present for the simplest tasks, the horrifying effects of scurvy and malnutrition. These men are in Hell before they’re stalked by a monster.
Simmons has researched the expedition thoroughly and his book proves that historical fiction doesn’t have to be textbook-dull. He’s captured the sensations of the polar cold, the smells of a confined space inhabited by men who’ve been unable to bathe for months on end, the weight of the layers of wool the men have to wear at all times, and the complete lack of anything resembling comfort or warmth. Simmons also captures the attitudes of the time, making it understandable to modern readers why anyone would sign on for such a journey or not mutiny after the first year or so trapped in the ice; he also explores the cultural attitudes of fear and contempt the expedition members have toward the native inhabitants (from whom the expedition could learn a few things that would better their chances for survival).
The cast of characters is fairly large (don’t worry, it gets whittled down pretty quick) but even the minor ones are so well-sketched that they are memorable. For the most part the reader wants these men to find some way out of this awful place, and the real terror of the book lies in how impossible that escape is.
The Terror is a story that will appeal to fans of horror, fantasy, and historical fiction. If you live in a place where it snows, you might want to wait until spring to read it, though.