In honor of NOVA’s “Arctic Ghost Ship” episode, detailing the solution to one mystery of John Franklin’s famously doomed Arctic expedition, I give you a retro review of Dan Simmons’ fictional take.
From January 20, 2010 …
Review: The Terror, Dan Simmons, 2007.
On July 26, 1845, the Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror, bound on yet another journey to discover the theoretical Northwest Passage, left two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay. These ships and the hundred odd men of the Franklin Expedition were, as the saying goes, never seen again – at least not by any white man. The Franklin Expedition became a legend in the annals of polar exploration. Discovering what happened to it became the object of many other journeys into the Arctic down to our day.
Franklin’s men faced the horrors of the polar cold, starvation, food poisoning, scurvy, and cannibalism. Did Simmons really need to add mutineers? No, but he gets away with it, makes it seem natural and not unnecessary sensationalism.
And did he need to add a monster to the horrors of real history? Well, no, but I probably wouldn’t have read this novel if he hadn’t given my impatience with most historical fiction. I’d have just read another nonfiction book on the expedition. And, while he gives several possible explanations for the monster, the one he goes with at novel’s end is probably the one most likely to appeal to the fan of historical fiction. Or so I imagine.
It’s a long novel, but Simmons grabs you from the beginning. The first chapter starts out with the trapped ship, shivering men, the mysterious and tongueless Eskimo woman Lady Silence, and a monster. To be sure, Simmons does repeat himself sometimes, perhaps more than he needs to even to keep track of over a hundred characters. There is a bit of cleverness involving a work of Edgar Allan Poe, but Simmons engages in some too obvious and unconvincing, in context, explanation of his allusion.
More serious is that I don’t think he quite lays the psychological foundation for the decisions and fate of one of his characters at novel’s end. And I think he waits too long to reveal a crucial characteristic of that character. But that is, relatively speaking, a minor flaw in a novel that should appeal to all but the most diehard disciples of realism in their historical fiction. Simmons blending of horror and history works, his jumping back and forth in time never confusing.