the HMS Terror & Erebus stuck in ice
As a kid, I was very into exploration. My grandmother informed me that we were direct descendants of David Livingston, and lacking any historical context that might cast him in a more accurate but darker colonialist light, I wore it as a badge of pride. I was made of wandering stock. I watched and rewatched Indiana Jones and fancied myself a modern day explorer and anthropologist. My interest was fostered by the curious objects that lay near my family’s property. Just beyond our back pasture, there was a graveyard of industrial sized spools. Nearby was the wreckage of a plane covered in a tattered plastic sheet. Beyond that, a demolished house. The only part still standing was the front door frame, through which you could see fallen home being overtaken by the woods. In the spring, flowers would grow in the ruins. I would often wander around these areas, examining what I thought to be priceless artifacts and clues of civilizations past. Chiefly on my mind: why had the plane crashed? Had anyone died? Why was the house torn down? Had anyone died? (And what were these darn spools about, anyway?) I had quite a morbid and anxious disposition. Sometimes late at night I would become convinced that ghosts haunted the ruins. They warned me to stay away yet compelled me forward to uncover their fates. Such are the bedtime thoughts of children.
So when I happened upon a book about arctic explorers, I knew I must have it. I am not sure what book it was, some googling seems to suggest Beyond the Sea of Ice: The Voyages of Henry Hudson as a likely candidate, but I can’t confirm it. All I remember is that it had an increasingly graphic series of pictures depicting scurvy, gangrene, frostbite, bones sticking out of ridges of snow, ships frozen in moving walls of ice, and mutiny. There were also tantalizing references to cannibalism. Perhaps I was just too sensitive of a kid or maybe they were excessively grotesque for that age group, but either way, I was deeply disturbed and fascinated. Arctic exploration did not seem to hold any satisfying victories, and yet so many men had died such terrible deaths chasing them. That book left a lasting impression on my mind. While I am always interested in survival stories, it is stories of extreme cold that attract me the most.
Therefore, when I found a copy of Dan Simmon’s The Terror at the clearance section of Half Price Books, again, I couldn’t turn it down. Simmons was a favorite author of mine when I was an older teen. His talent for combining literary elements and genre fiction excited me. Hyperion, the first book of his I read, was structured like the Canterbury Tales and drew from Keats, the Bible, and Shakespeare as well as classic science fiction & fantasy. My love affair with him fizzled out after reading some Internet postings of his that revealed him to be quite xenophobic, a trait that worked itself into his writing, especially the latter half of his book Olympus where the Muslim and homosexual paranoia would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. I quit reading him. What was the point? So many books, so little time. But The Terror, I reasoned, set during 19th century naval exploration, couldn’t have any Muslim characters, might be worth a shot.
Tangent: It’s an interesting dilemma to think about. Can or should we look past an author’s obvious bigotry to try to find their good work? With long dead authors we easily do, otherwise we could read none of them! Can you name one pre-20th century male author that wasn’t horribly misogynistic or racist in some way? For a modern author it is less excusable. I know that I will never buy a Simmons book without first reading reviews of it, nor will I ever reread his older works with the problematic content, but I decided to try The Terror. And to be perfectly honest, it had less to do with an analytical decision than my small self yelling “But the arctic! Ships! Scurvy! Frostbite! Cannibalism!”
I’m glad I did. Right off the bat, I will happily report that The Terror not only did not have any glaring offenses, it actually featured a homosexual partnership that was loving and respectful. (As well as one that was sort of comic book cackling evil, but at least it was balanced out) His portrayal of indigenous people was a little exoticized, but nothing outside of the norm.
So with that out of the way, I freakin loved the book. Obviously, as I have detailed above, I was primed to. It combines the best of several of my favorite genres: historical fiction, horror, and surivalism. The Terror tells an imagined story of what happened to the real life John Franklin Expedition. In 1845, John Franklin took two ships: the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus in search of the Northwest Passage. They never returned and the ships were lost. Over the years, historians have come up with some likely scenarios for what happened to the expedition, but the last days of the men aboard remains a mystery. Simmons takes these historical facts (and from what limited research I have done, he handles them masterfully, weaving his story so tightly into the truth that you begin to believe it might have happened) and turns into into a tale of survival and horror so terrifying it kept me up late at night.
In Simmons’s version, the crew not only battles food shortages, the demoralizing early death of Franklin, temperatures that reach sixty below, mutinous crew members, and disease, but they are also stalked by a beast that hides in the ice and emerges at random to pick them off one by one. At first they think it is only a polar bear, but as the novel progresses, the beast’s size, speed, intelligence, and almost supernatural powers lead many to believe it is the Devil himself. The appearance of the beast coincides with the crew’s discovery of of Lady Silence, a mysterious Eskimaux woman who knows how to survive in the Arctic and may possesses knowledge of the creature that she cannot communicate because her tongue has been chewed off. Silence serves, among other things, to illustrate how ill equipped the crew is. None of them know how to hunt their own food or survive in the subzero temperatures, something she does so effortlessly that many crew members begin to see her as a supernatural creature as well. Simmon’s portrayal of the arctic is so intense and their situation already so dire that some reviews have suggested that the monster isn’t necessary, but I think it gives the book a mythic quality that justifies the book’s ending. And it’s freakin scary, y’all.
Photos of the real Francis Crozier and Henry Goodsir.
The novel is narrated from many different characters points of view, but is dominated by the narration of the captain who takes over after Franklin’s death, Crozier, and one of the ships doctors, Goodsir, both very appealing characters. Crozier’s working class Irish roots give him a pragmatic approach that contrasts with Franklin’s Society influenced vainglory. He advised against the path that Franklin chose, but now must lead men through it. Goodsir has no experience at sea but eventually earns the respect of the men through his determination and respect. Most of the characters are drawn wonderfully, mired in their own complications that they can’t fully escape, even at the end of the world. So many of the characters reach a point where they must decide what they are willing to sacrifice for survival. The body comes easily enough, but loyalty, friendship, faith, dignity, morality? Simmons shows the basic drive for survival as both inspiring and dangerous. Characters like Crozier and Goodsir push on even as they realize they have little chance of survival, but refuse to break from the traditions that form the basis of their identity: the hierarchy and code of the ships. Others are willing to throw out all for the chance to keep breathing, a choice that makes them as unpredictable and frightening as the frozen country. Like many great stories set in the middle of nowhere, this book is really about the great human achievement: civilization. Nestled into our urban lives, we can easily forget that it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but something created to give our lives meaning. As with all human creations, it both restricts and protects us. In the Terror, individuals must decide how to define themselves without that structure.
This is a long book, but well worth it. It has just the right blend of historical detail, character depth, macabre, and literary sensibility to make it a truly satisfying read. The ending has a tonal switch that may put some readers off, but I didn’t mind it. Simmons resolved enough to let me walk away without being too traumatized, but left enough ambiguity that my mind still wanders back to it.