Dan Simmons’s The Terror introduces the reader to a nightmare—a deadly combination of horror, fiction, and (most unsettlingly) reality. In 1845, 148 men led by Captain Sir John Franklin departed England on two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, in search of the Northwest Passage.
The expedition was a complete failure.
Navigating treacherous ice floes in the far north, dealing with months of endless winter and endless night, and limited supplies all seem to spell a recipe for disaster on their own. But in The Terror, Simmons wonders, what if there was something even worse than that?
What if there was something out there in the infinite darkness?
Meticulously researched, The Terror brings both the historical reality of the expedition and the terrifying fiction to life. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of major (and minor) players—including Captain Sir John Franklin himself—and fluctuate back and forth through time. The first chapter, narrated by Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, captain of the Terror, opens by pinpointing their location on their voyage and subsequently, our location in the story:
Lat. 70°-05’ N., Long. 98°-23’ W.
Beginning with these unassailable facts, Simmons brings a sense of authenticity to the novel. He even provides maps tracing the ships’ unfortunate route in the front matter so we can follow along on the journey, even peek ahead if we so choose. But in this very same chapter, Simmons yanks the rug from under us when he has Captain Crozier inspect some damage to the ship’s reinforced hull:
Something, Francis Crozier suspects, has dug down through these tons of snow and tunneled through the iron-hard slabs of ice to get at the hull of the ship. . . . And now it’s banging and clawing to get in.
Crozier knows that there’s only one thing on earth with that much power, deadly persistence, and malevolent intelligence. The monster on the ice is trying to get at them from below.
Clearly, this is not going to be a simple case of man vs. the elements.
I think what surprised me most was getting an introduction to this seemingly supernatural element so early on in the story. Numerous times Simmons would build suspense throughout a chapter until my heart was racing and my hand rose to my mouth in shock only for me to realize there were still hundreds of pages left—we weren’t even close to the climax.
I wondered how on earth he could keep this momentum going for 700+ pages. Where could the story be going? But I was never disappointed. Through an expertly woven combination of conflicts (man v. nature, man v. man, man v. monster), I was never bored. I was shocked that the book just didn’t drag. It wasn’t exactly a nonstop thrill ride, but it ebbed and flowed, pulling the reader ever closer to the inevitable conclusion—whatever that seemed to be at the time.
But The Terror wasn’t without its flaws, either. The book is a white man’s world with little room for anyone else. I’ll be the first to admit that this clearly seems due to Simmons’s desire for historical accuracy and to keep all perspectives among those aboard the ships. Still, the women and people of color that are depicted don’t get the fairest shake.
An old flame of Crozier’s, Sophia Cracroft, isn’t condemned for her role in Crozier’s past, but she certainly isn’t sympathetic or fully fleshed out, either. She plays but a small part, though, as she can only appear in the story through Crozier’s memories, and who knows how much of what he remembers can be trusted.
Lady Silence, however, features a bit more prominently and represents the only real major female presence as well as the only non-white character. She’s Inuit, and though Simmons has clearly done his research on their early 20th-century culture, it’s not quite enough to save her either from tokenism or mystical stereotyping. Chapters from Silence’s perspective really could have helped here, even if they were rare. I’m not sure I’d call her portrayal offensive, but I’m sad to admit I did ultimately find it disappointing. Simmons is clearly a talented writer—it’s just a shame he didn’t put any of those skills to use for this character.
But neither of these issues detract from the overall work. The Terror is a solid piece of historical fiction as well as horror. It is perfectly suited to short wintery days and long icy nights. I went in to the book knowing little of the real Franklin Expedition so history buffs may have a slightly different experience, but to them I say, suspend your disbelief. Just let yourself fall into the nightmare Simmons weaves. I think it might be my favorite horror novel I’ve ever read. And I think my favorite part about it is that when you boil it down, it’s less about the horrors outside your door and more about the horrors within.