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The Terror by Dan Simmons started out for me as pure escapism. It was hot. Not only was it irritatingly steamy in my apartment, but I had a severe case of post-travel I-don’t-wanna-be-here-itus. I lugged The Terror, a hefty read at 700+ pages, to San Francisco and back without once cracking it open. Unpacking zapped my will to do much more than make and inhale a frosty pina colada. Then I sat back and there it was within reach. I don’t even have to get off the couch? Sold.

After the first page I was hooked. Hopelessly hooked. No longer was I in my sticky apartment about to contort myself to fit in the freezer or break every bone in my body trying. It was recently picked up by AMC for development. If done well, I bet this will be the next great love for Walking Dead fans. Equal parts horror, historical fiction, thriller, adventure and survivalist fiction, this fictional account of the Franklin Expedition is so good it had me reading with my mouth open. Very fetching, I know.

the terror book

On the first quest to discover the fabled Northwest Passage using steam engines, the 1845 Franklin Expedition set sail from Britain with 129 men and two ships, H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror. Stranded crews starving, forced to eat lichen stew, their shoes and sometimes each other were not unheard of, so they left with provisions for 3 years, 5-7 on rations if necessary. An optimistic teetotaler, Expedition Captain Sir John Franklin wasn’t worried. Many of his hardy officers and crew were seasoned veterans accustomed to the challenges and dangers of Arctic and Antarctic voyages.

The ships departed in May of 1845. They were seen in July of 1845 for the last time. No one on the expedition was heard from again.

This fictional narrative explores what may have happened. Simmons details the errors in judgement and frozen nightmare that kept the crew iced in for years. We join the Terror’s Captain Francis Crozier in 1847, both ships are locked in by ice about a mile from one another. They’d hoped the waters would open, but now a second summer has passed without thaw. Winter and its six months of darkness approaches. It’s -50 degrees F on deck and the Aurora Borealis dances over their heads. Watches are short; in these temperatures teeth can shatter if they chatter too long. Frost bite is the least of their worries. There’s a creature, the men call it the Terror, with black eyes and the stench of human on its breath.

Early on, Simmons cleverly takes us on a tour of the ship Terror through Crozier’s nightly round. Temperatures fluctuate dramatically from the deck, to the dead room below, to the level where the cook Mr. Diggle churns out biscuits nearly around the clock.

But traveling deeper into the ship, Crozier realizes, is like traveling too deeply into one’s body or mind. What one encounters there may not be pleasant.

This is a horror story unlike any I’ve ever read. This 13 foot creature that looks like hell’s version of a giant polar bear with the cunning of Hannibal Lecter is terrifying, but it’s the dire conditions that had me completely immersed and always wondering how anyone could have survived. Coal and other supplies used to stay warm enough to not freeze to death are running out. The hefty quantity of victuals mocks their hunger with each spoiled can. The condition of each ship rapidly deteriorates as ice, and something else, continues pressing in. And the young Esquimaux woman, the crew calls her a witch, has made a temporary home of the ship. No one knows where she goes when she disappears for days and even if they could understand her language, she doesn’t have a tongue.

Simmons digs into the minds of men who ventured on these expeditions, what their lives were like at home and why they may have chosen to spend years on the frozen sea.

It was a thrilling, almost erotic feeling – an illicit discovery of self separated from everyone and everything else in the cold and dark – and he feels it again now, as he has more than a few times during his arctic service at opposite poles of the earth.

My favorite thing about this book is the detail of what life was like aboard these ships day to day. The fleeting pleasure found in the daily ration of watered down rum, also running out. The towering ice pressure ridges and long, hard journey between ships. Noises from the dead room. And if you’ve ever wondered what to do should you find yourself on a sea of ice in a lighting storm beneath a tent held by metal poles, the answer is run.

The story is told from multiple view points, though mostly Crozier’s and Dr. Goodsir, who kept a journal. Crozier’s determination to live takes on a heroic scale as he faces a barrage of daily decisions from rationing supplies and keeping morale above the threat of mutiny, to if and when they will abandon ship and seek rescue on foot. Dr. Goodsir’s account of treating those dying of scurvy with diminishing supplies, amputating frost bitten body parts and attempting to treat the gruesome wounds of the few who survive a meeting with the creature gives you a front row seat of what it meant to live another day.

To me, this is a perfect novel. (Pay attention to the dates at the beginning of chapters as the first third or so jumps around in time.) It’s so well written that sometimes I’d go back and re-read pages for the same reason you step closer and closer to a painting that has it’s own world. It’s a dark suspenseful chiller that snowballs to mythical proportions. Simmons never lets you forget how cold it was, how ill equipped they were for this climate, how little they understood of this part of the world or the fact that these men were attempting to navigate through unmapped land and waters. They had no way of knowing for certain if they were heading towards open water, around a peninsula or island, on a river or bay.

A few chapters in, I began to crave this book, constantly flipping to the map in the front for orientation. It’s perfect for summer…One minute you’re lethargically lying on the floor watching the fan spin and listening to sirens wail by, the next you’re in wet wool slops, iced in the arctic with spoiled food, scurvy and mutinous bitter men, stalked by an ice monster who’s way older, smarter, stronger and faster than you. Ahhh.

There’s not a single lull in the 750+ pages. Knowing that the crew of the members of the Franklin Expedition were never seen or heard from again doesn’t spoil the end. Dan Simmons is brilliant with this ending. I think readers who love horror, historical fiction, adventure, true tales, survivalist stories, mythology or all of the above would love this book.

Check this out! It looks like one of the ships of the Franklin Expedition was found last year.