(2007-02-01)Published by Bantam Press
Being familiar only with Dan Simmons epic science fiction work, it initially came as a surprise to me that his latest book, The Terror, was to be a historical horror tale based on the doomed Franklin Expedition. However it becomes immediately obvious that The Terror is very typical of Simmons writing, albeit within a more limited framework.
The Franklin Expedition, named after the man in charge, Captain Sir John Franklin, was formed to find the fabled North-West Passage (the sea route lying above the Arctic Circle, between Canada, Greenland and the Arctic itself, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans). For over 300 years explorers had searched for a route through these icy waters and even as late as 1845, trading ships were still having to travel the long sea-route from Europe to the west coast of America via India and China. A lot of money could be saved if a shorter way could be found. Thousands of pounds were offered as a prize for finding the North-West Passage.* However the Franklin Expedition suffered several catastrophes in attempting to achieve this goal and Simmons has re-imagined their journey to encompass elements of horror and the supernatural.
In essence, The Terror is a slow burning suspense/horror tale that attempts to twist a real life story and fill in the blanks using myth and monsters. Written in part like a log or diary, the story is well researched with Simmons creating a vivid picture of a freezing, white land that is as dangerous and unforgiving as it is beautiful. To those who know nothing of the Franklin Expedition the first surprise with the book is that the central character is not Sir John Franklin but his second-in-command taciturn, middle-aged, Irish-born British Naval Captain, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier. Crozier is a bitter alcoholic who believes life to be Ďsolitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.í He is also a highly perceptive authoritarian and an apt, likable guide through the grim events. Although Simmons uses multiple perspectives to tell the tale it is to Crozier, and to a lesser extent one of the expeditionís Doctors, Doctor Goodsir, that he relies for the bulk of the narrative, creating a patchwork viewpoint that eventually builds a whole picture of events on the ice.
Structurally, The Terror is a mixed bag of clever touches and awkwardness. Each chapter starts with a small box giving the expeditionís position through longitude and latitude, as well as the date. The chapters are almost always told from the viewpoint of a different character and very rarely does a character tell two consecutive chapters, with ten characters in total telling their piece, however small, of the story. This leads to a fractured narrative, both in terms of offering a clear voice and posing chronological difficulties. Keeping track of where and when the Expedition is, whilst not challenging, does force the reader to be vigilant at the start of each chapter.
Were it not for the narrative jumping around in time so greatly - the second chapter takes place two years and five months before the first - and at times so quickly, several chapters number less than fifteen pages, the boxes would be an interesting and effective device in creating suspense. Indeed, after the exuberance of the first few chapters the narrative settles into a much more successful linear format, albeit with the chapters occasionally jumping forward months at a time, and the boxes become a vitally important, even poignant, part to the bookís conclusion.
The pacing of Terror is slow and with the first few chapters offering a discordant opening the book does take some getting into. I found this especially true of the nautical terms that Simmons uses consistently in the opening, not knowing my orlop deck from my hawser room was a distinct disadvantage to begin with and the general language use is at times awkward, I confess to skipping a few sections that didnít seem to add much to the story. Given the size of the book, weighing in at over 750 pages, it is not unkind to suggest that some trimming of the material would have made for an easier read, particularly if you go a few days between reading sessions.
Although it is initially hard to keep track of names with so many men on the two ships, the book slowly draws you into these two small worlds with its class and ranking systems, its own little industries and methods for survival. The little details in the book build up a very clear image of the expedition, creating diverse characters with their own language and idiosyncrasies. It is a harsh environment making hard men even harder and leading to situations that few of us would ever wish to face. This is the key aspect of Simmonsí writing, building and maintaining a believable world within which his characterisation can flourish, helped by the intelligent use of the books titular monster.
The terror itself, without giving too much away, is a satisfying if subtle horror, attacking in occasional, sustained bursts but generally appearing just at the corner of the readerís eye or waiting at the back of their mind. This is a sign of good suspense, with several sections keeping the reader right on the edge; anticipating whether or not the terror will appear, what that mound in the snow may be and who, basically, is next, it really is effectively used. What becomes more interesting toward the end of the book though is how our viewpoint of the terror is altered, subtly but enough, toward a more chin-stroking contemplation of the wider, and indeed deeper, picture.
The ending is a combination of satisfaction and curiosity. A large piece of the puzzle slots into place as a question that the reader has been hanging onto gets answered, bringing a wry smile and moving the storyline toward a conclusion that is enjoyable for its change of direction. To Dan Simmonsí credit, he doesnít feel pushed to tie it all up neatly or follow the genre traditions of a final act, but it does leave several large questions that itch enough to require following up through the internet or research books.
In conclusion The Terror is a slow burning story that takes time to unfold and find itself. As a result the initial sedate pacing and overall length of the book may not appeal to those looking for a quick fix. However, there is an enjoyable, thought provoking horror tale to be found that is a melancholic, suspenseful treatise on the dangers of adventure in environments we donít really understand and the cost of survival.
Owen Jones © 2007
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