Skip to content

The Terror

Terror SnipHas a ship ever been more appropriately named than the HMS Terror? A mortar-launching bomb vessel converted to icebreaker, she sailed to Antarctica (a massive frozen volcano, Mount Terror, is named for her) before setting off with her sister ship, the HMS Erebus, on the 1845 Franklin expedition to chart the Northwest Passage. Terror and Erebus became frozen into the ice west of Baffin Island, where the crews slowly starved and froze to death over the course of two horrifically cold winters and thawless summers before making a desperate and doomed trek south. Only years later were a few traces of the expedition found, the bodies showing signs of lead poisoning, murder and cannibalism.

My most recent bout of insomnia has allowed me to finally finish off Dan Simmons’ 784-page novel, The Terror, based on the Franklin expedition. Simmons’ Sir John Franklin is fueled by a combination of Victorian hubris and a desperate need to redeem himself following a previous arctic failure, which leads him to take the expedition into dangerously risky territory (the echoes of Iraq are never overdone, but they’re hard to miss). As a series of catastrophes — natural, manmade and supernatural — unfold, the story shifts to Crozier, captain of the Terror and the huddled band of survivors, at which point, the novel kicks in and never lets up. The survivors must deal with scurvy, mutiny, and winters of constant darkness and unrelenting cold. And that’s not even counting the thing out on the ice that’s killing the men one by one.

The novel paints arctic exploration as inept intrusions on a relentlessly hostile and unforgiving world, exacerbated by the arrogance of explorers who mistake their accidental survival for triumph over nature. Only Crozier and his crew’s determination to survive for the sake of survival keeps them going. As things get more and more dire, it becomes clear that this instinct is not necessarily heroic.

I’ve never read any of Dan Simmons’ other work, but I might have to now. The Terror is a grim story, but it never feels nihilistic — Simmons is surprisingly warm and humanistic even while he’s killing his characters, and the details of 19th-century polar exploration are fascinating without ever interfering with the story. It may be 800 pages long, but it’s a damn entertaining 800 pages.