The Terror (2007) is Dan Simmons' epic tale of the frosty north. Using the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin as the basis of his tale, Simmons recounts the tragic misadventure of the 130 men aboard the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror.
The two ships set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage. Franklin immediately (at least, in the narrative sense) makes a series of poor decisions. As a result, the ships are trapped in the ice. Initially annoying, the delay gets longer and longer - and conditions get worse and worse.
Although billed as a traditional horror novel, Simmons shows that the supernatural has nothing on the natural. The expedition is stalked by a giant monstrous beast out of folklore. Its predation is fairly terrifying, but, when put in contrast to the horrors of scurvy? Give me the slavering hell-monster any day. In fact, between disease, cannibalism, insanity and the cold (the horrible, horrible polar cold!), the monster barely cracks the top five.
Simmons' commitment to realism is, in fact, what makes The Terror work as a piece of (scary) writing. His thorough research and attention to detail bring to life every aspect of the stranded mariners' pathetic journey. And by incorporating the blatantly-supernatural so early in the book, he earns the latitude with readers to doctor the truth as he see fit. As far as historical fiction goes (and especially fantastic reinterpretations thereof), Simmons has hit the perfect balance.
The Terror uses a variety of methods to maintain interest throughout its impressive length - including juggling perspectives amongst many of the expedition members. The protagonist (of sorts) is Captain Crozier - the talented, but alcoholic, disciplinarian that rules The Terror. Other characters - including a dashing young lieutenant and an ambitious surgeon - also get their moments in the polar sun. Simmons changes between third-person and epistolary narrative forms, keeping the book's strong historical tone.
I'm afraid that going more into the plot would only involve spoilers - and since every major twist is thoroughly debated, analysed, foreshadowed and executed - I'm loathe to discuss them here. Suffice it to say, The Terror is a book that is well worth the effort, and often, the anguish, of reading. Combining the worst of nature with the worst of the unnatural, Simmons has created a brutally absorbing, unrelentingly cruel horror epic. Read it whilst warm and cozy in bed at night.
Tube journeys: One plane flight and two tube journeys
Rating: Eight steamy mugs of hot chocolate and six polar bears. This one's a winner.