Friday, December 12, 2008

The Terror by Dan Simmons

My contribution to Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books project is a book that I read two years ago, and was released in paperback last year. The reason why I have nominated such a recently published work, is that it did not make the kind of splash I had expected. It also is not a crime fiction novel, but a hybrid of the horror and adventure genre. I loved it, as it disturbed my sensibilities and made me look at the world slightly differently.

Two of my favourite films are ‘The Thing from Another World’ [1951] and its remake / reworking ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’ [1982] which were based on a SF story ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W Campbell, all set in the Artic circle. So I was amused to read that Simmons dedicated his latest book to the cast, writers and directors of the 1951 film version. The reason for this dedication is that ‘The Terror’ shares the same theme, location and atmosphere to that frigidly terrifying movie. Simmons’ is a writer who I have followed for many years from his award-winning horror, science-fiction as well as his crime-thrillers. The Terror seems to be a culmination or apex to his work, and probably his most ambitious, because it is studiously researched, written in period flavour and rich beyond belief in terms of atmosphere. But this means that it is a whopping doorstop of a book weighing in at close to 800 pages.

The plot details a fictionalized account of a real British expedition in the 1840’s to find a northwest passage through to the Artic. Two ships set off - HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The cold and ice are only two of the terrors that the mariners face, for rotting food, disease, threat of mutiny and a howling creature trapped on the frozen ice start to cull the men on this unholy mission. The expedition is led by Captain Franklin [HMS Erebus] and Captain Crozier [HMS Terror] and interestingly features the class distinctions that were rife in those times. The most remarkable aspect of this novel is the style of writing and atmosphere. I had to turn the heating up when reading this book because it actually gave me real goosebumpy chills, reading about the icy cold weather that locked the ships to the ice. Then metaphysical chills appeared when the mariners leave the ships [when they become frozen to the ice], and encounter an Eskimo man and woman, who is mute as her tongue appears to have been sliced out. Then the sound of a monster out on the ice howls in concert with that of the wind. The mariners consider the Eskimo woman to be a witch drawing the monster on the ice toward them, but the mariners know that as their ships lie trapped in the ice of the polar cap – there can be no escape.

Despite its length, and heavy use of description, it moves at a fair pace but the most critical aspect is the atmosphere of impending doom that starts from page one and is unrelenting. I’d say this has to have been a labour of love for Simmons in inventing a fate for the two lost ships in their unholy journey, because it has pathos and mystery. If you want a book to trap you for more than a few hours, with an unconventional plot, the ‘The Terror’ is just that book. But I know that your heating bill will increase when you crack the spine of this hefty tome, because the chills in this book are real .


  1. THis looks like the perfect book for my husband.

  2. Sounds a good one Ali.
    Wikipedia has a page about him