Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Terror (A Review)

Captain Francis Crozier . . . knew something that the men did not; namely that the Devil that was trying to kill them up here in the Devil's Kingdom was not just the white-furred thing killing and eating them one by one, but everything here - the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the uncanny lack of seals and whales and birds and walruses and land animals, the endless encroachments of the pack ice, the bergs that plowed their way through the solid white sea not even leaving a single ship length's lee of open water behind them, the sudden white-earthquake up-eruption of pressure ridges, the dancing stars, the shoddily tinned cans of food now turned to poison, the summers that did not come, the ice that did not open - everything.

I have read some pretty intense books in my time. But I have never read a book that literally gave me nightmares (I'm not kidding). Maybe it was the marathon three-hour 300-page reading session I put in before I went to bed but I just had to finish Dan Simmons's The Terror. Writing a 955-page book is certainly a risky endeavor, as your audience needs to have a pretty good reason to invest so much time in reading it. But if anyone can pull it off, it's Dan Simmons, who has yet to disappoint me, even as he's scaring the living crap out of me. In addition to great horror, The Terror is also an exhaustively researched and richly detailed work of historical fiction dealing with one of the greatest maritime mysteries of them all: the disappearance of Captain Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition to the Arctic, which consisted of two state-of-the-art (for the time) ships, the Erebus and the Terror.

Left: Sir Franklin; Right: Captain Crozier

In many respects, The Terror is ostensibly part of a relatively recent development (dating to the nineteenth century I believe, but don't quote me on that) in Western literature: that of the Unprepared White People Go Crazy in Alien Landscape story. Other notable works of this type include Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the African jungle) and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky (the Sahara). The Terror, however, contains an element of the deadly supernatural that also places it solidly in the genre of conventional horror writing à la Stephen King or Peter Straub. The book opens in October of 1847, as the crews of the Erebus and the Terror are undergoing their second winter trapped in the everpresent and unrelenting Arctic ice. The environment is a veritable White Hell. Besides the monster that has already attacked and eaten several members of the two crews, the British sailors are surrounded by hundreds of miles of ice that is constantly cracking, groaning, grinding out massive seracs and cleaving into treacherous pressure ridges. For all the sublime beauty of such an inhospitable continent, Simmons never resorts to Dean Koontz-style purple prose ("Winter night, wound in scarfs of fog, like a leprous mendicant, rattled out a breath as though begging their attention beyond the glass.") prose to illustrate it. It is enough to describe it simply as it is without having to resort to amateurish metaphors and Simmons seems to have realized that.

The top right image shows the graves of several Franklin Expedition sailors on Beechey Island.

Although the man-eating monster is equally well-drawn, it is not so much scary as it is suspenseful. There's really only so much you can do with a Big Bad Creature, but luckily Simmons fully succeeds in building it up to its full potential. No, the real emotional impact of this novel comes from the behavior of ordinary human beings and the result is a horrific and vivid catastrophe towards the end that woke me up from sleep at five in the morning. (Hint: there's a character named Hickey who makes Conrad's Kurtz look like Bowles's spoiled, neurotic Kit Moresby.) But the overall narrative is one of surrealism and constant tension, from the landscape to the beautiful and tongueless "Lady Silence" to the men's "Venetial Carnivale," clearly based on Edgar Allen Poe's 1842 short story "The Masque of the Red Death." Some Amazon reviewers criticized The Terror for being too bleak, but I found the ending to be one of transcendent hope, redemption, and spiritual awakening. Unlike Dean Koontz, who feels he must preach and moralize to get his point across, Simmons is a subtle and complex writer who creates honest, true-to-life characters with whom the reader can easily identify.

In short: The Terror is not a book for everyone. Besides its prodigious length, it is dense at times, deeply disturbing, profoundly affecting, and occasionally gory. But for those willing to take the plunge, I strongly recommend it.


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