In 1845, Sir John Franklin departed England as captain of Erebus and leader of an exploratory expedition to forge a path through the last unnavigated portion of the Northwest Passage. Franklin, the Erebus, its sister ship The HMS Terror, and all 128 members of the collective crew would never be seen again. The ill-fated voyage has come to be known as Franklin’s Lost Expedition. In The Terror, Dan Simmons recounts what might have happened to the men of Erebus and The Terror.
We follow several characters, from chapter to chapter, often returning to one or two players, Sir Francis Crozier, Captain of The Terror, in particular. The characters are well-drawn and each is given his own arc, easily followed despite the large cast. I found myself wondering, on several occasions, just how genuine Simmons’ take on these people might have been to the true figurants. The amount of research required to craft such a believable cast of characters, within such a believable world, must have been staggering.
Simmons is especially adept at blending historical fiction with horror. He manages to construct a universe in which historical figures, including Franklin and Crozier, are featured as main characters, while plausibly inserting an Inuit witch, cannibalism, and an ice-borne monster into the narrative. Both lovers of horror and historical fiction should feel perfectly at home in Simmons’ universe, in turns reading through the diary of Dr. Harry Goodsir and wondering at the nature of the quite-possibly supernatural beast roaming the dark regions that surround the marooned ships.
There is a post-apocalyptic tone to the narrative, with its characters wandering a hostile, barren environment. The setting alone—given the situation in which the characters find themselves—is enough to elicit tension and conflict. The monster, supernatural or not, only adds to the suspense and mystery, as the author combines a survival narrative with the likes of Jaws or Jurassic Park.
Simmons’ style is highly literate but accessible; mimicking the language and tone of Franklin’s day while maintaining a rapid pace. Yes, The Terror is somewhat overlong and, though its pace is swift, it is forced to slow at times, gasping for a breath of frigid air, but the story is fascinating, the conflict non-stop and varied, and the characters vivid. Its length, in fact, ensures that we are thoroughly immersed in the narrative so that, by its end, we feel we have been through nearly as harrowing an adventure as have the crews of the Terror and Erebus.
I greatly enjoyed The Terror, and look forward to reading Simmons’ most recent foray into historical horror, Black Hills.
Visit Dan Simmons’ website here.
If you enjoyed the following list of titles, you are likely to enjoy The Terror. Likewise, if you have read and enjoyed The Terror, you will surely like these titles: The Alienist by Caleb Carr; The Stand by Stephen King; Humbug by Harold Schechter; Nevermore by Harold Schechter; Drood by Dan Simmons