By Olivia Shan
In 2016, two years after the discovery of HMS Erebus, her sister ship, HMS Terror was finally found. So ended a nearly 200-year-old archaeological search to track down the remains of the vessels that disappeared with the men of the infamous Franklin Expedition. The fact that Terror was found in the depths of none other than Terror Bay, Nunavut, is another mysterious irony that aligns with the near-legendary reputation of the renowned maritime tragedy.
When Victorian England had no more major wars to fight, after over a decade of skirmishing with Napoleon, the British government turned much of its focus and funds towards exploring the remaining untouched corners of the world— in particular, the much sought-after Northwest Passage. Allegedly, whoever found the Passage— a way through the hazardous maze of Arctic islands and icebergs of Northern Canada— would claim exclusive trading routes to Asia; although, what was ultimately more important was the prestige associated with being the first to find the Passage. An expedition to the Passage was much like going on a groundbreaking space mission, though you are much less likely to die as a cosmonaut on an interstellar spacecraft than as a Victorian able seaman exploring the Arctic on one of Her Majesty’s Ships.
Even when early failed attempts seemed to prove that the brutal, dangerous waters of Northern Canada would be useless as viable trading routes, the British Naval Admiralty’s ambition became all the more invigorated. In 1845, yet another attempt at the Passage was made. With a scant number of unexplored lands left to be drawn on the maps, the Admiralty wanted to make sure that, this time, they got it right. A hundred and thirty-four seasoned Royal Navy officers and men were to crew two of Britain’s finest ships, the aforementioned HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. They were additionally equipped with state-of-the-art technology like steam engines, a central heating system, and years’ supply of canned food preserves: the best 19th century Victorian society had to offer. Off they sailed in spring with a whole nation cheering for them, the crew fully expecting to be back in a year at the most. Yet not a single man from either Erebus or Terror would ever return from this expedition.
Several subsequent rescue missions in search of Sir John Franklin (the expedition leader) and his men were only able to piece together parts of what happened: the ships had gotten stuck in ice and were eventually abandoned by the men. Then, driven by no small amount of desperation and madness, they attempted to man-haul sledges weighed down with tons of often absurdly unessential cargo over 800 miles of barren Arctic tundra to reach the nearest trading post before starvation, scurvy, and exhaustion killed them. There are many missing chunks to the story that we may never uncover, but, by all accounts, these men suffered a long and painful death.
This dark tragedy seems already rife with horror story potential, and Dan Simmons’s novel The Terror retells the story behind the lost Franklin Expedition with a twist like no other. On top of the myriad of horrors the crew endure, Simmons throws a giant, shape-shifting, killer monster-bear into the mix. His book has subsequently become something of a cult classic since its original publication in 2007, as it successfully rides the line between horror-thriller genre fiction and dense Melvillian historical fiction.
The novel opens with the expedition already in dire straits; the two ships are locked in frozen Arctic waters, without any chance of a thaw. From the very first line, “Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts,” the reader is immediately caught up in a tension that only escalates as events keep spiraling down. Simmons’s writing affirms his skills as a practiced, genre storyteller. The energy and tension during the action-heavy scenes, particularly the encounters with the bear-demon, coupled with his ability to present them through more character-based introspection, make for some of the most memorable scenes of the book.
Simmons paints a vision of the Arctic that is personified as predatory yet still presented as completely entrancing. While reading The Terror, the almost magical allure of the Arctic felt almost as real to me as it must have been to those men on the Franklin Expedition. This is a place that seems otherworldly in every sense of the word. In fact, some descriptions of the ice and the terrain of King William Island appropriately read almost like science-fiction; for a crew of 19th century Victorian sailors, travelling through formidable icebergs and desolate, gray tundra would have been as alien to them as venturing to the Moon. There is nowhere on Earth that embodies both beauty and terror quite like the Arctic. In contrast to its ethereal appearance is its ruthlessness and raw brutality. It is abundantly clear that humans are not meant to come here at all; this is a place where nothing grows; where the presence of sunlight is a luxury; where the never-ending ice is an active and invincible obstacle. Even inside the safety of the boats, threats from the outside world are impossible to ignore: the bellowing screams and growls of the ice slowly crushing the hulls of the ships haunt the men night and day. In this sense the ruthless demon-bear terrorizing the men is one with the nature of the environment. The monster is but another extension of the hostile, deadly ice trap in which they’ve been caught. It doesn’t matter how prepared the crew might have been, because here, they are still entirely at the mercy of the elements: a hard pill for some to swallow.
Simmons also has a historian’s fastidiousness when it comes to his research. The enthusiasm he has for his subject matter shines throughout his book from the elaborate descriptions of the inner workings of the ships to the politics of the British Admiralty. Another highlight is the richness and depth he gives his characters. With ample research and imagination, Simmons makes the vibrant and diverse array of personalities that composed Franklin’s crew come to life. There is the pious, proud John Franklin, a veteran of several failed Arctic exploration trips who was nonetheless so loved by his men they affectionately called him “Sir John”; his second-in-command, young, handsome James Fitzjames, the darling of the British Admiralty; Erebus’s unfailingly kind, assistant surgeon, Harry Goodsir, a curious lover of the natural world; and the jaded but competent captain Francis Crozier, who is a cynic and an alcoholic, fresh from the sting of a broken heart and embittered by the unfair treatment he’s gotten from the Admiralty over the years due to his Irish heritage. Rather than simple icons from a historical event, The Terror presents us with multi-faceted characters that have led complicated lives long before they came on this expedition. These men were genuinely looking forward to the high adventure they thought they were signing up for, which makes the tragedy that awaits them all the more gut-wrenching to read.
Even so, the tension that Simmons builds during his more intense scenes is dragged down by clumsy info dumping and far too many unnecessary, historical trivialities. At times, memories from the characters’ pasts are genuinely fascinating and add weight and complexity to the decisions they make in the present; however, too often they cross the line into long-winded tales that end up adding nothing to the book except length. These sometimes near-chapter long passages are numerous unfortunately: one in particular where a character flashes back to an unforgettable fever-induced and dreamlike, platypus-pond sexcapade was especially excruciating to read.
Just as frustrating is the very significant presence of misogyny and racism within the text. This could be excused by the need for historical accuracy, but what cannot be excused is the often cringe-worthy way in which these passages are written. The way every single woman who is even mentioned in this story is sneered at or sexualized— or both— becomes very tiresome. On top of that, Simmons’s attempts at incorporating aspects of Inuit spirituality into his story’s supernatural elements seem reductionist at best. This is all the more infuriating in contrast to the way Simmons depicts homosexuality in his book. Sodomy on ships was common, even though it was a crime punishable by death. Simmons doesn’t at all discredit the period-typical homophobia, yet he still treats the deep, abiding love between two of the men, Peglar and Bridgens, with all the respect that it deserves. Both characters are also wonderfully fleshed-out; in fact, they were among the characters I felt most attached to by the end of the story. Thus, I am confused as to why Simmons apparently thought that a cast of characters comprised of only a hundred-odd (mostly) straight men would be boring without a raunchy flashback to sex things up or an Inuit woman for the men to ogle. I find that Simmons’s tasteful decision to section the book into small, multiple POV chapters is helpful in this regard. For example, my frustration with Crozier would quickly dissipate with the start of a Goodsir or Peglar chapter. An argument could be made that Simmons is only faithfully presenting the dated values of a bygone era, although the strong presence of a female voice in the narrative would have gone a long way to mitigate some of the book’s more offensive passages. Above all, I wish Lady Silence, the only prominent Inuit and female character of the book, was given a much more active and interesting role, if only so I could try to forget all the instances where Simmons’s writes about yet another character’s genitals. Alas, we are stuck with Platypus Pond.
Whether it be the Arctic ice breaking through the ships, the elusive monster that seems intent on stalking and hunting the men, or the snowballing effects of lead poisoning and scurvy driving the men to mutiny (or worse), it is clear that the terrors in Dan Simmons’s book are many, but the only one that truly matters is the looming inevitability of death. Monster or no monster, these men are going to die on this expedition. This suffocating reality slowly wears away the men’s initial hopes and optimism. Death is a long thrum hidden in the howl of a screaming wind and nursed in the growing darkness of the crew’s crumbling psyche. After they make the mad decision to man-haul their heavy sledges across the entire surface of King William Island, labels and hierarchical ranks matter less and less. Death strips them of everything that had previously made them proper, civilized members of society. Masks fall and truths are revealed as the men are entrenched deeper and deeper in this literal and metaphorical exposure. They become desperate, not only for their own survival, but for the survival of the society that they carry with them. This is why they cling to medals, books, silverware, anything that reminds them of England: of London cobblestones and linen beds and hot meals and their loved-ones waiting at home. But, when one approaches the end of everything, what is the point of rank, of civility, of duty, of purpose? What is honor worth when the only thing separating you from life and death is cutting off flesh from the cold body of your dead comrade?
These men hauled all of their humanity with them to the end of the world—their hierarchies, their hubris, their God,—everything except for the humility that is necessary to anyone who wants to survive in the Arctic. Most of them never realize that the only humans who had managed to live in such a place were the people they insisted on dismissing as “savage” and “primitive.” The Terror is ultimately a critique of Victorian hubris and the folly that drove so many men to go explore these impenetrable, unfathomable places—and for what? What were these men all looking for, in all the whiteness and death of the poles? Why did some keep coming back to them, like missionaries, like pilgrims? Surely it wasn’t to bring glory to their countries, or for any of their other vanities and conceits; the least that they would have learned is that there are some places where human notions and constructs have no chance of surviving.
Revision: Magdalena Nitchi