The Terror by Dan Simmons

The Terror by Dan Simmons is a 2007 book about the Franklin Expedition, a doomed Northwest Passage endeavor that failed spectacularly when all of the men were never seen again after being trapped in the frozen ice for three years.

TL;DR Version: Very dry and slow beginning with lots of fruitless and repetitive details, but pays off at the end with an interesting interpretation of what really happened steeped in mythos and humanity.

I’ve read novels by Simmons before — most notably 2009’s Drood that was a pointless exercise in editorlessness — and was rather turned off. I like description and I like wordiness, but there comes a point when I just stop caring about what’s happening — even if what’s happening is super exciting, like ZOMG PEEPS IS DYING FROM EPHEMERAL POLAR BEARS — because of the repetition of lists of people’s names and where things are on the ship in specific, nautical detail, and even cycles of events.

Simmons tells a story well, but gets bogged down in minutiae, effectively stopping any terror or dread from creeping into the novel. The creepiest bits, as usually happens with horror novels — not that this is a ‘horror’ novel per se, it just has many a horror element in it — are in the beginning as each chapter shifts temporally until the past catches up with the present and the story moves fairly straightforward from there.

It starts with the men already frozen in ice for the second year in early 1848 around King William’s Island (which they thought to be a Land before realizing it wasn’t connected to the mainland of Canada) and bumbles back and forth between a giant, polar-bear like entity killing the men whilst they are trapped and the rough beginnings of the expedition that should never have taken off in the first place.

Simmons does his homework; everything is meticulously researched so that events play out as historically accurate as possible until the world lost all communication with the Franklin Expedition when they abandoned their ships to the ice in April of 1848 and decided to walk to open water so as to sail south toward the Back River. The accuracy lends atmosphere building and enriches the hopelessness of the world these 19th century Royal Naval sailors found themselves in, but some things are best left out so that the reader can either decide to fill in details, or so that the story isn’t weighed down with unnecessary lecturing.

And I understand how that can be difficult. There are times when I write an entire outline for the background of a story that’s ten pages long, only to use one paragraph from it. Not using the rest is frustrating, but necessary.

The ending, however, is where this book really saved itself. I was going to dismiss it as another slightly creepy yet still rather uninteresting Simmons novel, until the last 150 pages (it’s a good 650) that detail, much like The Walking Dead, how the survivors of such horror — the elements, scurvy, starvation, food poisoning, evil polar bears — turn on each other and become their own destroyers. Once the book becomes more human and less of a historical report, Simmon’s excellent character development drives the story and it becomes unstoppable. I finished the last third of the book in one night, wanting to know how the remaining survivors deal with the horrible consequences set in motion against them.

It’s not surprising that AMC has decided to make The Terror into a television series, since it shares so many themes with one of the best character-driven shows in the last five years.

Four stars out of five. My own conceptions about the novel were turned around by the end, but that still doesn’t even out the repetitive nature of the beginning.


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