Acclaimed horror and science fiction writer Dan Simmons’ The Terror is an atmospheric and deeply disturbing supernatural thriller. Simmons tells the story of the lost expedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 to navigate the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic.
In real life, the expedition had simply disappeared, and none of the 129 people aboard the two Royal Navy ships, Terror and Erebus, were ever found. From notes later discovered by search parties it was confirmed that the two ships had wintered in a sheltered cove of Beechey Island and had set sail when the sea had thawed in the spring of 1846.
However both the ships had soon blundered into unseasonal sea ice flowing down from the North Pole, and had got stuck, this time for almost two years. As the ice failed to thaw, the ships were abandoned in 1848 and the surviving men embarked on a desperate march to reach the Canadian mainland over frozen ice. According to eyewitness reports from the Inuits of the region, the survivors had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Ultimately, none of them made it.
Simmons’s telling adds a further deadly twist to this tale: a spectral Arctic monster that’s stalking the crew of the two ships. There’s also an enigmatic Inuit woman who might have something to do with this. The terror on the ice, depleting rations and morale and scurvy all take their inexorable toll on the men aboard Terror and Erebus, and Simmons masterfully ratchets up the hopelessness and the tension.
Since practically nothing is known of the exact fates of the ships’ crews, Simmons is free to tell the tale, creating a mythic tale of the doomed voyage that’s both seductive and eerily haunting. Told from multiple points of view, as well as flashbacks, the protagonist of the tale is the captain of Terror, Francis Crozier. Taking command of the expedition after Franklin’s death at the hands of the monster, Crozier leads the remaining crew onto the ice for the desperate march south.
Beset by scurvy and mutiny, with the ever-present monster nipping at the survivors’ heels, the group separate and perish in different, gruesome ways. Simmons’s eye for detail and his research is astonishing throughout the narrative. Alternating between gritty realism and otherworldliness, this is a masterful book.
Published in 2008.