Terror: A Novel
Little, Brown and Co., 2007
Dan Simmons has always been an author interested in history and literature. This interest is present in Hyperion, in relation to the titan, the Canterbury Tales, and British poet John Keats; important in Illium and Olympos which mashes together elements of The Tempest and The Illiad; and essential in Drood borrowing from Dickens; his latest Black Hills involving the Battle of Little Big Horn; and here in Terror. While I have fondness for Simmons’ earlier work, I love the Hyperion and Endymion books and enjoyed Summer of Night, my interest in his later works has waned. This maybe says something about me rather than Simmons but there you have it none-the-less. Thus my relationship with Dan Simmons’ Terror can only really be described as adversarial. There are no other books that come to mind that I have struggled with even half as much as The Terror. I’ve owned the hardcover since it’s original release and made only one previous attempt at reading it. This time, come hell or high water, I promised myself I would finish this book. Of course, forcing oneself to read a book I’m clearly not too invested in makes the reading all the more difficult; a notion supported by the fact that it took me the better part of 2 months to read this novel. The Terror bases its story in historical fact, namely the journey of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror to find the Northwest Passage. Simmons’ adds into the mix a spectral monster that, along with the cold and the scurvy, whittles away at the crew of both ships.
My love of arctic based horror, namely in the form of HPL’s At the Mountains of Madness and John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, had me excited to read Terror. Unfortunately, the novel’s historical setting causes a number of problems that made it difficult to get into the novel. First and foremost is Simmons’ seeming inability to decide whether or not he wanted to write a horror novel or historical fiction. There is certainly room in any work of supernatural horror for a certain amount of historical fact but in The Terror I felt the abundance of historical fact and detail served only to undercut the elements of horror (both the unrelenting cold and the spectral predator) in the novel. Simmons cast his net a bit wide and in an attempt to frame the novel within the greater context of arctic exploration and British Imperial rule only distracted me from the characters and the situation at hand.
That same historical focus manages to also take away from the characterization of many of Terror’s characters. While we get perspectives from several different characters they serve as distractions from the novel’s central character Captain Francis Crozier. Indeed, all of my favorite moments from the novel occur during a Crozier chapter leaving the majority of the other perspectives offered (Lt. Irving being of particular note) feeling ancillary. From the lengthy dream sequence as Crozier decides to sober up, to the battle with crew-members turned cannibal, right up through the final chapters Crozier typical features some of the more interesting aspects of the novel. Crozier makes for a strong protagonist whose secret participation in Catholic Mass and hinted at precognitive abilities add an element of mystery and mysticism. However, Crozier despite being what amounts to the central protagonist, still feels woefully incomplete with too much attention given to his hang-ups and anxieties regarding his status in proper English society.
The saddest part about my struggles with Terror is the near inescapable feeling that there is something tremendous beneath the surface. Their are moments and images that the novel burns into your mind that make the dull and banal sections all the more tragic. From Lady Silence’s ritual on the ice outside The Terror, to the discovery of the remnants of a scouting party, or the final fate of Caulker’s Mate Hickey and his party Dan Simmons retains the undeniable ability to cast compelling and chilling imagery. This novel is anything from taught and the strength of those images can’t save the novel from sinking beneath the weight of the text that surrounds them. Indeed, I had persevered to within the last 50 pages of the novel only to turn the page and find…verse. At 50 pages left (or thereabouts) I almost threw this book against the wall and walked away for good. Indeed, while the ending of the novel is certainly well-written, its tone stands in stark contrast to the oppressive weight of the threats facing the characters earlier and stands out, amongst many many many other parts of the novel, as Terror’s extraordinary need to slim things down.
I wish I could say I enjoyed Terror but I honestly can’t. I will always remember parts of Terror but by and large my feelings after having finished the novel are of relief rather than satisfaction. Indeed, I’d go far to say that after having read Terror it may be a while before I am tempted to try anything new by Dan Simmons at all.