The novel “The Terror” by Dan Simmons was published for the first time in 2007.
In October 1847 the British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which set sail in 1845 for an expedition that intends to be the first to cross the last part of the Northwest Passage, are blocked in the Arctic ice. Because of the weather colder than normal, during the summer they couldn’t move and the prospect is having to spend another winter in the same situation.
There are many dangers in the Arctic and the sailors start dying for causes to ascertain. In addition to the threats due to natural environmental conditions, something else started attacking the crews, a strange creature that looks like a giant polar bear but shows a superior intelligence.
Dan Simmons imagines the real protagonists of Franklin’s expedition during their search for the Northwest Passage. Some events are known thanks to some testimonies and to documents left by the officers of the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and the author filled the holes adding the supernatural element, in particular with the presence of a mysterious creature playing cat and mouse with the crews.
“The Terror” remains above all a historical novel in which Dan Simmons tries to reconstruct the events faced by members of Franklin’s expedition with their reactions to the adversities they encountered. When possible, he follows the historical events and this means that reading something about them leads to discoverying how the novel ends, but it’s a work for which stating that it’s the journey that matters and not the destination is not a figure of speech but is meant literally.
To tell the journey of the two British ships, Dan Simmons uses a structure that especially in the initial part is non-linear. The novel begins in 1847, more than a year after the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror got trapped in the Arctic ice. This is the beginning of the crisis for the members of the expedition and their commander Sir John Franklin must start making difficult decisions.
From that beginning, the narration goes back and forth in time telling what happens to the expedition but also how they reached that moment. This structure allows to get to know in particular the stories of Sir John Franklin and the captain of HMS Terror, Francis Crozier, along with their motivations. Both of them had a lot of travelling experiences in the polar areas and again Dan Simmons takes advantage of the historical reconstruction of the lives of the two real officers to create various elements of the novel.
In Dan Simmons’ reconstruction, Sir John Franklin saw in that expedition his last chance for personal glory and for this reason he wants to succeed at all costs. The consequence is that he sees any form of retreat from the areas reached by the two ships as a form of weakness but he end having the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror stuck in ice.
Other flashbacks concern the story of Captain Francis Crozier, the main protagonist of the novel given that Dan Simmons especially follows his point of view in the narrative. Crozier is Irish and therefore discriminated against within the British Navy but he finally got a ship’s command.
Occasionally, Dan Simmons follows the point of view of other important characters such as Dr. Harry Goodsir, one of the expedition surgeons, in this case through his personal diaries, and the treacherous Cornelius Hickey, who becomes central in the second part of the novel.
In “The Terror” there are many characters and inevitably Dan Simmons chose some significant ones that were developed together with the plot. Others received some characterization, especially through their reactions to events. For the most part they’re just names or little more.
The novel is focused in particular on the events that start in October 1847, when the prospect for the crews of the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror is to have to spend another winter stuck in the ice. The narration allows us to understand what it meant in the 19th century to face that kind of difficulty being first of all isolated from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until 1848, when no more news arrived from the expedition, that Sir John Franklin’s wife took action to begin a rescue expedition and initially no great concern was shown at the Admiralty.
The expedition could take advantage of technologies that were state of the art at that time. The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had steam engines that could also be used as an internal heating system. They sailed with plenty of canned food in order to adequately feed the crews and avoid the diseases that in the past struck sailors during long journeys. Scurvy was one of the most feared diseases by sailors in the past because it killed slowly and painfully. In “The Terror” Dan Simmons describes repeatedly and in detail its symptoms in its various stages.
The attention to detail also concerns the rest of the narration, with the result that the novel is long and its pace tends to be slow. There are moments action that can be intense but the story of the expedition mainly concerns the daily struggle for survival by the crews of the two ships.
As a horror “The Terror” is atypical because the creature is loosely inspired by an Inuit folklore legend but Dan Simmons dedicated his novel to the stars, producers, director and composer of the movie “The Thing”, a classic of science fiction with horror connotations, set in an Arctic base. Simmons took the various inspirations reworking them and adding them into a historical novel.
A mini-series based on the novel, also titled “The Terror”, was broadcast starting from March 2018 by AMC in the USA and was made available in many countries on the Amazon Prime Video service. This adaptation cuts a lot of flashbacks, changes some plot elements and focuses on the relationships between the protagonists but I think they’re both great works that offer different interpretations of the history of Franklin’s expedition.
Dan Simmons is an author who very often mixed genres and sub-genres in his works with the consequence that labels are limiting. “The Terror” is a complex novel for all the elements that the author put in it. I recommend it to readers who love to get immersed into stories with many details and are not sensitive to cold. 😉