Book Dive: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Imagine this… “a hellscape of jagged ice cliffs, treacherous chasms, and howling arctic winds”. If this gives you chills and peaks your interest, read Dan Simmons The Terror.

Imagine this… “a hellscape of jagged ice cliffs, treacherous chasms, and howling arctic winds”. If this gives you chills and peaks your interest, read Dan Simmons The Terror.

(Minor spoilers ahead)


Imagine the following scenario: For years, you and your mates have been trapped in a hellscape of jagged ice cliffs, treacherous chasms, and howling arctic winds. Your wooden ship was frozen fast in the ice that won’t seem to melt even when “summer” came. Temperatures regularly plunge dozens of degrees below zero, rendering touching anything metal without protection extremely painful. Also, the shifting, grinding ice threatens to turn your only shelter into driftwood below your frost-bitten nose. You share a small, cramped space with dozens of other men who haven’t showered or worn fresh clothes. Your food supply is not only gastronomically repulsive, but it is also very possibly actively poisonous with lead and running out in any case. There is no guarantee that you will ever be able to escape from here—if the ships are lost to the ice, you’ll have to hike hundreds of miles back to the nearest trace of civilization. God help you if you didn’t stash enough food along the way. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve imagined what it might be like to be a British polar explorer in the 19th century. Great job! 


Now imagine this: Somewhere out in that dark, perpetual polar night, among the snowdrifts and cliffs, something is lurking. Something monstrous, a predator with almost unbelievable malevolent intelligence. Gibbering survivors describe it as being similar to a massive polar bear, but… it just isn’t. It snatches men on watch from the decks of the ships and slips away before anyone can respond to the lone scream for help and crack of the poor sod’s musket—not to mention to anyone unlucky enough to be alone on the ice itself. You’re not convinced this thing is killing your friends strictly for food either—sometimes the victims return, but with the torsos and legs of their corpses crudely swapped, as if to mock you. This thing on the ice is picking you off, one by one, waiting for the chance to finally claw into the ship itself, the last bastion of safety available to you. This is the nightmare scenario that the men of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror find themselves in Dan Simmon’s 2007 novel The Terror


Before we proceed, a short history lesson is in order. Don’t worry I won’t go full AP European History on you (sorry, Mrs. Narbon…). The short and long of it is that, since the first days of European exploration in the Americas, the idea of the Northwest Passage had loomed large in the minds of explorers—a sea route through the frozen waters north of Canada that would lead to the Pacific and Asia beyond. Its discovery would create a shorter, lucrative trade route between Europe and Asia and bring untold wealth and glory to the man who could find it. Naturally, this led to many attempts to find the legendary passage, and by the early 19th century, Great Britain had led the way in polar exploration. In the course of many expeditions, at great cost in treasure and human suffering, her explorers slowly mapped out the waters off Canada’s northern coast and through the many islands therein. Therefore, in 1845, a new expedition under the command of seasoned polar explorer Sir John Franklin was outfitted to explore the final unnavigated stretches of water. Under his command were 129 men and two vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Royal Navy warships that had refitted with stronger hulls and new steam engines, the first of their kind sent to the Arctic. The innovation was promised to give the ships the power to steam right through the ice, even if they lacked wind for their sails. The expedition set sail from England on 19 May 1845 and, after a brief rendezvous with whalers in Canada’s Baffin Bay, was never seen again by Europeans. Their disappearance led to many rescue attempts and a mystery that has endured to the modern day, but this is not the focus of The Terror. Rather, it is an examination—albeit a fictionalized one—of the sufferings and heroism of the men who sailed from Kent that fateful May day, never to return. 


This book, ultimately, is a work of historical fiction. There is, of course, no way to know for sure exactly what happened to the Franklin Expedition—even with the discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror in 2014 and 2016, respectively, and other archeological discoveries, which came after the writing of this novel (but not before its adaptation in 2018 into an award-winning AMC show). However, for what the book lacks (through no fault of its own) in exact scientific facts, it more than makes up for the story it creates by taking these creative liberties. From a mechanical point of view, the plot is told from the perspective of multiple characters from both Erebus and Terror and begins in media res (in the middle of the plot)—an approach that may seem disorientating at first but creates narrative tension between the reader, who knows how certain plot points will turn out, and the characters who don’t, as well as between characters who know certain secrets and others who do not. A compelling protagonist is offered by Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, commander of HMS Terror and Sir Franklin’s second-in-command of the expedition. He is a tortured figure—throughout the novel battling crippling alcoholism and depression (or “melancholy” as it is referred to in classic Victorian euphemism) that stems from deep-seated insecurities over his status as an Irishman in an English-dominated world, a commoner among aristocratic commanders, and darker memories and secrets—but he manages to rise above himself to become the leader the crew needs in their darkest hour and eventually a sort of hero through his cynical wit and absolute determination to get as many of his men out of this hell as possible. Exposition on events before the beginning of the novel is mainly offered by Sir Franklin (portrayed as an arrogant buffoon looking to redeem a long, disappointing career) and ship’s surgeon Dr. Goodsir (a young and naive surgeon who eventually grows into his own- his chapters are often told through excerpts of his personal diary, complete with Victorian spellings and conventions). In terms of villains, the “thing on the ice,” as the crew mates call the beast slowly whittling down their numbers, is probably one of the most compelling monsters I’ve seen in fiction. I know this will be a weird comparison, but I’d compare it to the murderous hitman Anton Chigurh in the movie No Country for Old Men: a brutal yet calculating force of nature that cannot be stopped, only temporarily delayed or evaded. The fact the novel starts in media res to establish the thing’s power makes the few times characters do manage to survive a head-on encounter with it all the more surprising and gratifying. Without spoilers, there is a certain sequence in the novel that marked the first time I was genuinely surprised a character managed to survive through skill and luck rather than just “plot armor,” and I was flipping frantically through the pages just waiting for the chapter to end with his inevitable death. It didn’t. A (dis)honorable mention for villainy goes to the devious and conniving Caulker’s Mate Cornelius Hickey, whose schemes to protect his own life and ego gradually grow to threaten the survival of the whole crew and establishes him as one of the best “love to hate them” antagonists I have seen in a while. 


I read this 800-odd page book in about a week in July. I know what you’re thinking. Reading a book about arctic terror in the dog days of summer? That quickly? Does this guy need psychiatric help? While madness does play a large role in the tale of The Terror, I can assure you there is a rational reason for my behavior. For one, I had a lot of free time. But, even more than that, Dan Simmon’s depiction of this frozen hell sucked me in. You don’t have to be an expert on polar exploration to understand the world the men of the Franklin Expedition exist in. You don’t need to know what a serac or polynya is to imagine the massive cliffs and endless stretches of pack ice that surround the doomed ships. Nor do you need to know the minutiae of Royal Navy life to understand that these men live in a world dripping with misery, huddling in the unheated bowels of their ships for protection from the world outside that is doing its all to kill them. The book even significantly incorporates Inuit (or “Esquimaux” as they are called by the Englishmen) traditions and culture, all of which are well explained (although it does bear noting that certain elements- it would be a massive spoiler to specify which- do appear to be the creation of Simmons and not based in actual Inuit stories). While superbly detailed in its depiction of life both outside and inside Erebus and Terror, the novel excels most at drawing you into the story of the crew members, and it is quite a story indeed. Watching the slow deterioration of conditions for the expedition was probably the first time I’ve felt genuine pity for fictional characters. We watch the men’s health decline as fuel for heating runs out, rations for meals are cut back to starvation levels which causes scurvy to run rampant, and as injuries rack up from freak accidents, the cold, and the beast. None of this is to mention their mental states being pushed to the limit of what humans can handle, causing some to slide into desperation and insanity, becoming willing to do anything to survive. One scene, in particular, is poignant in illustrating this (minor spoilers ahead). After finally being forced to abandon their ice-crushed ships and flee on foot, the crew marches for miles, man-hauling their boats, supplies, and incapacitated comrades through some of the worst conditions in the world on a Hail Mary run for salvation, all the while losing friends to disease, starvation, and the thing stalking the column. When they finally find open water, they must sail their boats through choppy arctic waters without shelter from the elements, and in the course of this, Crozier realizes their course has led them through one of the last unexplored areas of water that leads west—they had technically found the Northwest Passage! When he announces this momentous news to his mates, however, the starved, scurvy-ridden, sunburnt, traumatized sailors can only offer a few weak cheers as their little boats drift in an unforgiving sea of ice. The end is coming fast for them, and none of them will be able to make good on this discovery.


So what’s the point of reading this book then? We already know that none of these men will be able to escape the Arctic. Why should we care for their sufferings? I think this is where the other side of their story comes in, even in the frozen last circle of hell: there is heroism and hope. We join the men in their ice-bound ships, which become a cozy, if uncomfortable, home, and we empathize with their despair when that home is lost. We see them in their moments of solace—chatting with friends over their poor meals, attending Mass, and even throwing a New Year’s Eve carnival on the ice. We see them not merely as horror-movie victims but as fully-developed men with their pasts, hopes, and dreams doing everything they can for each other. Even when things get bad, they retain their camaraderie and spirits; their lifeboats are renamed Poor, Nasty, Brutish, Solitary, and Short with classic English black humor. And this makes us root for them, even though their fate is sealed. We want these underdogs to keep holding on against the seemingly insurmountable odds. In a way, I found myself sympathizing with Crozier as he battles his inner demons as well as the outside world, growing to realize that life is worth holding onto, even in the darkest of times. A more literal example of what the novel is about is found in the minor character of Private Heather, a Royal Marine soldier who is rendered brain dead early on after an encounter with the thing on the ice that leaves half his skull scattered on the snow-encrusted deck of HMS Terror. Although his miraculous survival leaves him a hapless invalid that would only slow everyone else down, his comrades come together to care for him and make him as comfortable as possible—even constructing his own sledge so he can be safely transported on the ice and refusing to leave him behind even though he is functionally useless to them—and he survives almost until the very end. Dr. Goodsir’s description of him as a “disturbing experiment in survival,” encapsulates what this novel is: an examination of what happens to men under the worst of circumstances and how they react to it. Some men fall into selfishness, even madness, under pressure and horror. But others, like Crozier, demonstrate what humans are capable of against all odds. That, I think, is why this book is worth reading. It is not a book of terror, so to speak, so much as a story of determination and hope against that terror.