I didn’t finish The Terror by Dan Simmons within the alloted RIP Challenge timeframe but that doesn’t really matter all that much. What does matter is how good this book is.
Remember the Franklin Expedition that set out on May 19, 1845 to find the Northwest Passage through the arctic? They were never heard from again. There has been quite a bit of modern-day searches done for remains and some have been found including a note in a cairn on King William Island. Still, all we can do is speculate as to the fate of the 129 men on the Erebus and Terror. The book, The Terror, is Dan Simmons’ fictional speculation. And what an imagination this man has!
The first year away on the expedition was relatively uneventful. The ships wintered off of Beechy Island and lost two crew members, one to tuberculosis and one to pneumonia. From September 1846 until the crews abandoned the ships on April 22, 1848, they were stuck in pack ice off the northwest coast of King William Island. Now imagine if you will, feeling confident that this is ok because you have enough food for two years of full rations. Then imagine that you discover that about half the tinned food has gone bad because it was not properly canned. Rations get cut back a little but not too much at first because summer is on the way and you are looking forward to the ice breaking up. It doesn’t break up. Rations are cut even more.
But that’s not all. The coal which you use to provide a modicum of heat to the living quarters is running out. And by heat that means around freezing but that’s still warmer than outdoors where winter temperatures can drop to -100 F. The ships get heated for only about an hour or two each day in order to save coal. Toss into this mix your very bad clothing–layers of wool–that never dry out completely. You are always wet and you are always cold. And half the year is completely dark. Would you be miserable yet?
But wait, that’s not all! How about a Thing that lives out on the ice? This Thing is huge and cunning. It thinks. And it is slowly killing men, taking them while they stand on deck during guard watch or while they are walking between the ships or sitting in a blind with bait on the ice hunting the it. Possibly connected to the Thing, but no one is entirely sure, is an Esquimaux woman they’ve taken in because some crew members accidentally killed the two people she was traveling with.
Going into the second winter stuck in the ice almost everyone begins showy signs of scurvy. In the spring that follows when it is clear the pack ice is not going to melt, all living crew members abandon ship and set off across the ice to King William Island. They do not travel light. They take all their food, coal, tents, personal belongings, a stove, a desk, and other useless things with them. They haul these things on wooden sledges that have boats on top of them. It takes about twelve men to pull one sledge. And the ice is not smooth and flat. The sledges often have to be hauled up 60 foot pressure ridges. Sometimes a day of hauling only makes it two miles from the last resting place.
You know when you were in high school English class and the teacher would go on and on and you would have to write essays about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ and ‘man against nature’ and all those “great” themes? Well, this book has it all in spades. And even better, the title, The Terror is delightfully layered and rich with meanings that twist and twine their way throughout the book.
The ending of the book takes a surprise turn. Like Daphne, I am usually annoyed by things like that. In this case, however, even though it is a surprise, given all that has come before, it works.
Even though the book is a chunky one, it goes by fast and more then once left my heart racing or caused me to gasp in surprise, fear, or horror. It is good reading and I highly recommend it.