The Terror is based on the British vessels HMS Erebrus and HMS Terror and their voyage to discover a northwest passage in the 19th century. Using their unknown fate as a literary springboard, Dan Simmons freely fills the gap in history as his imagination allows, and in the process has created a work of historical fiction that transcends genre. Classified horror due to one of its plot devices, the novel is in fact much deeper in scope. On the surface it is the story of the two ships and their crews’ attempts to survive, frozen in the ice for more than two years, but at another level, it is an examination of the hubris of humanity and its attempts to defy nature.
Reining himself in from the vivid descriptions and vibrant storytelling of the HYPERION CANTOS or JOE KURTZ novels, Simmons’ imagery of a frozen wasteland in The Terror requires a tone more subtle and melancholy; the setting of two ships trapped in the frozen Arctic for two years is simply not conducive to action-packed narrative. Proving as adaptable in style as genre, the effort is successful. Simmons more than convincingly describes the day-to-day life of trying to survive in -60 degree temperatures and stinging blizzards, not to mention claustrophobia, cabin-fever, and paranoia that set in amongst the crew the longer they spend trapped on the ice. Surprisingly weighing in at over 900 pages, the novel’s sublime description of slow dwindling supplies and morale pulls the reader down to the crew’s level for a firsthand experience, pace not suffering in the least. The despair and hope of escaping a situation so far removed from their lives in Britain comes to life under the author’s pen and keeps the reader engaged.
Simmons adheres to historical data for as much as is available in the bulk of the story. Certainly, however, he does take some artistic license, not only deciding the fate of the crew members, but also including an ice monster that harasses, terrorizes and generally makes already miserable lives all the worse. Though its sudden emergence is at times scary, the beast makes enough appearances to warrant deeper investigation into its thematic relevance. More than a cheesy plot device, who the monster kills is of vital importance to understanding Simmons’ commentary on the mindset of the era, the superman attitude with which colonial powers set about building empires to dominate the world showing its flaws. The incongruous ending of the novel, rather than confusing the narrative, in fact highlights the degree to which mankind has continued to separate itself from nature. That many reviewers misunderstand this only emphasizes the point.
At one time historical, horror, and literary fiction, Simmons’ ambitions in The Terror nonetheless remain tightly focused. By telling the tale from the minds and mouths of the crew, officer to common sailor, the book maintains its social and environmental integrity. The reader’s vicarious experience of seeing the world through the eyes of Captain Crozier, for example, gaining the knowledge he does after being trapped on the ice for two years is suitable for any era. As such, this book comes highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of the HMS Erebrus and HMS Terror, life in the Arctic, or simply one man’s imaginative telling of a fate for which history has no record.
FanLit thanks Jesse Hudson of Speculiction for this guest review.