06 July 2009

Books: The Terror by Dan Simmons

In The Terror, author Dan Simmons takes a true, historical story of the famed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage and wraps a it into a thriller worthy of Stephen King.

The crewmen of the Terror, and its sister ship, the Erebus, have been trapped in Arctic ice for two years without a thaw when the novel begins. Shortly, we are told how the expedition began its voyage, with great detail, and how eventually they end up trapped in the Arctic. As the story moves forward, we learn that the real threat to their existence is not the ever changing, ever shifting arctic landscape, the victuals that are poisonous even before they’re opened, or even the slow destruction of the two ship caught in the grips of unforgiven able ice. The real threat comes from the darkness of the winter nights, from a supernatural creature that is stalking the crews one by one or whole groups, leaving bodies mangled or just plain missing.

Simmons takes his time setting up the story, going into great detail about both ships and its crew. And I suppose, killing off 146 people takes time and many pages (the mass market edition clocks in at 955 pages). As the horror of their adventure unwinds, I was often reminded of The Bridge Over the River Kwai and the role of Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness). Insomuch, I guess, as the Colonel plays by the rules of British military and dislikes anyone who questions his orders, especially lowly officers below his status. Colonel Nicholson, despite being a POW and forced to build a bridge, deplores sabotage and other deliberate attempts to delay its progress -after all, that is what the rules of his war states. So does the captain of the Terror, in essence. Despite being trapped in the ice, and with everything going down hill quickly, he decides to stay longer than they should’ve, thus dooming him and his crew to fate of the arctic and whatever is stalking them.

The characters featured in The Terror are almost all actual members of Franklin's crew, whose unexplained disappearance has warranted a great deal of speculation. The main characters in the novel include Sir John Franklin, commander of the expedition and captain of Erebus, Captain Francis Crozier, captain of Terror, Dr. Harry D.S Goodsir, and Captain James Fitzjames.

The book, maybe, is a bit over long, but it’s a damn fine adventure, horror story and thriller. The characters are well developed, but it was hard for me (anyways) to keep them all straight. And, perhaps, my only criticism lies in one gay character who becomes the leader of mutinous group and who kills at leisure and eventually goes mad. Now, I realize this is set at a time (1846 to 1848) when such men were hanged for being gay, but still (and there are two other gay men who are portrayed in more brighter light).

As for the monster that is stalking the men, Simmons reveals little of what it actually is, though he spends the last few chapters exploring Eskimo mythology. But in the end, whether the bear-monster is an actual mythological creature or something else is left unexplained.

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