The Terror

By Dan Simmons


Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I become convinced that I know exactly why it was written. It’s totally unprovable, of course, but sometimes a notion catches that me that sounds so right that I instantly believe it. ‘The Terror’ is Dan Simmon’s historical horror novel based on the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition.  The expedition, which was real, took place relatively late in Franklin’s career, and used the same two ships as his earlier Antarctic expedition, The Erebus and The Terror. And I am 100% convinced that Simmons decided to write this book because writing a horror novel about a ship named ‘The Terror’ was frankly irresistible to him. I believe that with such confidence because it was irresistible to me – ‘The Terror’ was a book I picked up because of title alone.

Franklin was himself captain of the flagship, Erebus; Captain Francis Crozier led Terror.  The expedition was the fourth and last of Franklin’s attempts to find the Northwest Passage, and, despite the loss of every one of the 128 men, Franklin is even now credited as its discoverer.

‘The Terror’, which is told from multiple points of view, begins in 1846, when the ships have become locked in pack ice off King William’s Island.  Despite their provisioning, they are about to spend their third winter on the ice.  Constant cold and darkness are taking their toll, the men are beginning to be plagued by scurvy and discontent, and there is no clear way for their two ships to make it out of the ice.  The most immediate and ghastly concern, however, is that there is something terrible and unidentifiable, something animal and intelligent, out on the ice, stalking and killing them one by one.

Trying to provide an assessment of ‘The Terror’ presents me with a problem of literary classification: to what does this book aspire?  Put another way, this is either a totally mediocre ‘good book’, or a fantastic ‘bad book’.  Why might this distinction matter, you might rightly ask?  Because, I would answer, the success or failure of a book, like any other endeavor, ought to be measured in part against its goal.  Did Dan Simmons sit down to write a work of ‘literature’, designed to impress the sort of highfalutin people who subscribe to the London Review of Books?  Or would he be happier to see his books next to, say, Stephen King’s, or Michael Creighton’s, selling like hotcakes to people who plan to read them on a beach?  These are two very different measures of success, and I feel I owe it to the author to at least try and place him where he would want to be.

The problem is that Dan Simmons makes this difficult.  ‘The Terror’ is well researched; the plot is complicated, and the characters (fairly) well developed.  This does not necessarily make a work of literature, but it certainly suggests a level of investment.  The very difficulty of making the determination suggests that Simmons intended the book to be taken seriously: he put a lot of effort and love into this story, and did a lot of research on both the expedition itself and on the Inuit people of the Artic.  If Simmons did indeed mean this to be in any way a contribution to the American literary canon, then it is an unspectacular contribution at best.  Simmons is not the best writer ever to hit the planet, and his story is a story alone: apart from a brief sop to global warming, it is merely a good tale.

Dan Simmons

However, I object to the very idea of ‘merely a good tale’, and that is why I would rather approach ‘The Terror’ as a work of Low Art.  ‘The Terror’ is a great tale: a scary story of adventure, romance, betrayal, death, and prolonged and terrible suffering.  It’s totally absorbing, and I write this as someone who normally finds nautical books less than fascinating.  I would much rather enthuse about ‘The Terror’ as a thriller than malign it as a literary contribution. 

In fact, the only real complaint that I have with ‘The Terror’ as thriller is the ending: like many of that genre, it unravels a little at its conclusion.  It’s hard to write a tight horror ending, and most authors fail most of the time, including the greats.  I think that this is because so many novels rely on the unseen to build suspense: very few things are scarier when looked right in the eye.  Hence the near-ubiquitous format of horror stories, the unknown entity creeping around the edges.  When it comes time to see the thing, explain him, many stories lose their tension.  ‘The Terror’ is no exception, but while it gives up its mystery, it at least attempts to make the reveal interesting.

‘The Terror’ also avails itself of another villain, a despicable human one.  In fact, it avails itself of three villains, the last being the terrible environment, and the cold and disease that it brings.  The urgency of the men on the ship, the frantic need for supplies and relief, the search for an escape, the impotence in the face of nature, these plot elements are probably more effectively scary than the creature on the ice, and are more artfully drawn out of the story.

‘The Terror’ is definitely worth its failings, if you’re looking for a thriller.  It isn’t a great work, but, having finished it, I am unperturbed by that.  I really enjoyed it; to employ an old cliché, I had trouble putting it down.  It’s a long read, clocking in at around eight hundred pages, and keeping my attention trapped in the ice for that duration was no mean feat.  Recommended.