As the old bleakness of British winter links arms with the slightly newer bleakness of British politics, it can be hard to settle down to anything upbeat. As a result this long, strange tale of the icy extinguishing of Franklin’s doomed arctic expedition is an oddly appropriate winter read: reading about men who are far colder then you will ever be is certainly a novel way to feel warm in January.
Dan Simmons is one of those authors who hovers somewhere between genre fiction and serious literature. Whilst his famous Hyperion series is shatteringly hard science fiction (of the kind to send casual readers screaming) The Terror is a different beast all together. The nearly 1000 page novel is a shivering re-imagining of what happened on Captain Franklin’s doomed 19th-century expedition to find and traverse the Northwest Passage. Whilst Simmons adds some John Carpenter thrills, the actual story has more than enough horror for anyone: Franklin’s two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, set off in 1845 but were trapped in the Arctic ice for years, with the ships only finally discovered in the last few years. None of the 100-plus men on the ships survived; little is known about how they died, but starvation, hypothermia, cannibalism and lead-poisoning from the canned food they took with them have all been posited.
Skilfully, horribly, Simmons details the months of darkness with the dispassion of a master surgeon: the temperatures of -50F and lower; the shrieking groans of the ice; the wind; the hunger; these are the palate he uses to paint a fearsomely detailed portrait of humanity in extremis. Whilst the recent television adaptation was masterful; the sheer length of the book and the many points of view can’t help but give the book an edge. Beyond the misery porn of the men’s dire straits, Simmons adds in another, more deliberate evil: a stalking, polar bear-like monster which tracks over the icy wastelands around the ships, picking the men off one by one. “To go out on the frozen sea in the dark now with that … thing … waiting in the jumble of pressure ridges and tall sastrugi was certain death,” he writes. “Messages were passed between the ships now only during those dwindling minutes of half-light around noon. In a few days, there would be no real day at all, only arctic night. Round the clock night. One hundred days of night.”
The sailors realise the ice isn’t going to melt enough to free their ships during the summer of 1847, that “there would be no release from this belly of the Leviathan winter this summer. No escape from the cold belly of this ice this year”. When the Erebus is crushed by the ice, the remaining men eventually decide that their best bet is to take what is left of their provisions and flee south across the frozen sea. Stalked by “the thing on the ice”, starving to death, they claw their way towards Canada in a last desperate throw of the dice. Anyone whose concerned over the subject matter can be reassured that even at its most shattering it’s less depressing than Brexit. The Terror is a unique creature, a ragged banner of humanity that transcends the more exploitative show than its genre might suggest and offers something bright, terrible and vital.