The Terror? Hailing the hell-bent original

My review of the original novel turned up in the Globe and Mail a decade ago. In response to popular demand, voila, here it is again . . . 

The Terror: A Novel, by Dan Simmons

Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

The most impressive achievement of
this brilliant historical novel is that the author manages to account plausibly
for all the known facts. In recreating the harrowing true story of the final expedition
of Sir John Franklin, who disappeared into the Arctic with two ships and 128
men in 1845, Dan Simmons offers imaginative solutions to the thorniest

After spending a first winter at Beechey Island, why did Franklin leave no note saying where he was sailing?
Why did sailors, and especially officers, begin dying in such numbers?  When, in 1847, the men abandoned the two ice-locked
ships, the Erebus and the Terror, why did they drag sledges
towards the continental mainland and not Fury Beach,
where food supplies lay waiting?

The questions get tougher: Why did local
Inuit not help the starving, scurvy-stricken white men? How could sailors of
the Royal Navy resort to eating the dead bodies of their comrades? How did one final
survivor end up sitting in a whaleboat heading back the way it had come. Simmons
incorporates oral testimony that some final survivors managed to get back aboard
the Terror, and dramatically explains
why contemporary searchers have failed to discover any traces of either ship.

Canadian literature is haunted by
these questions. Besides such classics as The
Arctic Grail
by Pierre Berton and Frozen
in Time
by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, the lost Franklin expedition figures
in works by authors as diverse as Margaret Atwood (Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature) and
the late Mordecai Richler (Solomon Gursky
Was Here
). The surprise is that Simmons, a prolific, Colorado-based American
who has won several awards for his suspense, horror and science fiction novels,
should demonstrate such mastery of this northern file.

And Simmons is more than plausible.
He is also dramatic and vivid – at times, horrifically so. He delivers arresting
evocations of the cold and the dark and a bloody flogging; and I do not believe
I have ever encountered more chilling descriptions of shipboard amputations or
of the effects of scurvy, lead-poisoning and botulism. Nor does Simmons neglect
the prosaic but enhancing detail. “Each time the survivors spent more than two
days at a camp,” he writes, “the bosuns dragged a stick through the gravel and
snow in some relatively open, flat spot to create the rough outline of the Erebus’s and Terror’s top and lower deck. This allowed the men to know where to
stand during master and gave them a sense of familiarity.”

Not surprisingly, given his
experience as a novelist, Simmons opens the narrative in October 1847, when it is
well-advanced, and flashes back as necessary. He alternates among several point-of
view characters, but most often he draws on Captain Francis Crozier, who in
real life was Sir John Franklin’s second-in-command. This enables him seamlessly
to contextualize the expedition, as the veteran Crozier can “remember” sailing
with Sir Edward Parry and Sir James Clark Ross, and also visiting Franklin when
he was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

Simmons gives one character a
diary, and he allows the Irish Crozier to have inherited the gift of second
sight, so that on occasion, for example, he can “see” what Lady Franklin is
doing back home in London. So far, so safe.  But the author also employs one risky narrative
strategy: he adds a mystical or supernatural dimension to the novel by
introducing a marauding monster — a cannibalistic Arctic windigo.

In so doing, he transgresses the
conventions of the prevailing psychological realism. As a result, he will draw fire
from both literary and historical purists, who will use the white beast as an
excuse to dismiss the novel. Aesthetically, however, Simmons makes the device

 First, he indicates that the beast should be
read allegorically. He does this by allowing Crozier to realize that “the Devil
trying to kill them up here in the Devil’s Kingdom was not just the
white-furred thing killing and eating them one by one, but everything here –
the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the canny lack
of seals and whales and birds . . . the summers that did not come, the leads
that did not open – everything. The
monster on the ice was just another manifestation of a Devil that wanted them

Secondly, Simmons identifies this
white beast, also called “The Terror,” as emerging out of Inuit mythology. And
in this way, he integrates the Inuit dimension, without which the novel would remain
incomplete. Finally, by introducing this inexplicable beast, Simmons implicitly
recognizes and asserts that some aspects of what happened on that long-ago expedition
must remain forever unknown.

No book is without flaws. Simmons treats
explorer Elisha Kent Kane far too harshly, and he serves up one fanciful sex
scene that, alas, just never could have happened. Nor did Lady Franklin, as she
is properly called, see her husband off at the London docks; and Leopold McClintock did not
read the final note at the cairn on King William Island,
but only when he arrived back at his ship.

But this is nitpicking. While
remaining true to the historical record in every important particular, Simmons
has given us a host of colorful, believable characters caught up in a driving,
hell-bent narrative.  The Terror is a tour de force. The
author’s nationality notwithstanding, this novel is far more deserving of
specifically Canadian attention than the majority of the books that, come
autumn, we will see short-listed for this country’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Ken McGoogan has written about the lost Franklin expedition in Lady Franklin’s Revenge, which recently earned him the Pierre
Berton Award for History and the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography; and in Fatal Passage, which is currently being turned
into a two-hour TV docudrama.

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