A horror novel disguised as historical fiction, or vice versa. In The Terror, Dan Simmons, a brilliant writer of many different genres, tells the true story of the HMS Erebus, commanded by Sir John Franklin, and the HMS Terror, commanded by Francis Crozier. The facts are all there: both ships were ordered to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Both ships became icebound. The canned food supplies on both ships were tainted with food poisoning. Both ships were abandoned and all hands perished on a long, brutal walk through an Arctic nightmare. There is some evidence of cannibalism.
But the story of what actually happened to the expedition can never be fully known. The ships were found, as were some remains. But what went on will remain forever a mystery. What Simmons has done here is fill in the mystery with fantastical fiction.
Simmons sticks to the facts in the broadest terms, but drops in heavy dollops of Inuit mythology and some of the trappings of horror fiction including a huge white creature that hunts and kills the men of the ships like a cat playing with a box full of mice. At first it is thought to be a polar bear, but it soon becomes clear that this is a monster on a whole other level.
The only problem is that this is a bridge too far. The fictionalized story of the expedition was harrowing. The monster on the ice seemed like it came from a different book (a potentially good book, but a different book nonetheless). The book is extremely long (almost 800 pages of a large bound paperback) and crammed with details about life on the ships, the horrific effects of scurvy, a full chapter on delerium tremens, etc. It’s not unlike Moby Dick in its attention to detail, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The last 100 pages or so of the book ties up the one remaining loose end from the previous 700 pages…the fate of Captain Crozier. It’s 100 pages of hallucinatory prose, mixed with poetry, blended with Inuit creationist mythology (at least the monster is explained…I was beginning to think it wouldn’t be), and standard expository prose. Nearly all of it could have been cut or condensed.
Simmons is a great writer and always worth reading. However, this book is nearly 300 pages too long. Edited down to a more than reasonable 450 pages, this book may have been classic Dan Simmons. As is, it’s a lot of work to put in for a relatively small payoff.