December 07, 2009

Review of The Terror

The Terror: A NovelFrom Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Hugo-winner Simmons (Olympos) brings the horrific trials and tribulations of arctic exploration vividly to life in this beautifully written historical, which injects a note of supernatural horror into the 1840s Franklin expedition and its doomed search for the Northwest Passage. Sir John Franklin, the leader of the expedition and captain of the Erebus, is an aging fool. Francis Crozier, his second in command and captain of the Terror, is a competent sailor, but embittered after years of seeing lesser men with better connections given preferment over him. With their two ships quickly trapped in pack ice, their voyage is a disaster from start to finish. Some men perish from disease, others from the cold, still others from botulism traced to tinned food purchased from the lowest bidder. Madness, mutiny and cannibalism follow. And then there's the monstrous creature from the ice, the thing like a polar bear but many times larger, possessed of a dark and vicious intelligence. This complex tale should find many devoted readers and add significantly to Simmons's already considerable reputation.
Some fans loved The Terror unreservedly:This is by far the best novel of 2007!!!!!, February 1, 2007
By Wayne C. Rogers

Wow! That's about the only word that comes to mind with regards to Dan Simmons' newest novel, The Terror. Call it a coincidence, but on the day I got the book in the mail from Amazon back around the middle of January, the science show on PBS, Nova, had an hour special on the 1845 Franklin Expedition. I watched it with great interest, wondering how Mr. Simmons was going to add to the tragic story with his novel. When I was able to start the book a few days later (766 pages of small print), it surprisingly took me almost two weeks to finish it, and I'm a fairly fast reader. I'd read each night before going to bed for a couple of hours and end up having bloody nightmares about the Artic, the cold, the sounds inside the ships, and the strange creature lurking out on the ice, patiently waiting for each of the crew members to make a careless mistake so that it could kill them. I don't generally have nightmares, but I did with this book, which shows the utter craftsmanship that was used in its writing. I can happily blame Mr. Simmons for two weeks of restless sleep!

Be Prepared, January 15, 2007
By J. Brian Watkins

Staggering. This book is a litany of failure and not so subtly the failure of western civilization itself; however, there is a surprisingly redemptive streak running throughout. Simmons is a tremendous author, capable of producing masterworks in any genre of his choosing and he is at the top of his powers in this work, which though ostensibly historical fiction owes a debt to mystery, biography, horror, and science-fiction with liberal doses of Shakespeare, sociology and philosophy.

More than a retelling of the Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, "Terror" is the story of Captain Francis Crozier who commands HMS Terror. Crozier has to overcome bad food, poor leadership, even poorer subordinates, mutinous sailors, cold, scurvy and a Monster, in order to reconcile himself with the future that he has seen but fails to understand. Strangely the journey through this dark and 750 plus page novel is ultimately reaffirming and as voiced by a character late in the novel, salvation was always waiting for Crozier who just had to make his choice.

Be prepared to be truly terrified and awed by this incredible novel, January 26, 2008
By Lilly Flora "by Lilo Drandoff"

One of the things I love most about historical fiction, and history, is creation myths and the impact they have upon their culture's religion and social ideas policies. Knowing a creation myth can give you the outlook on life for an entire culture. For instance, Greeks believe that first there was chaos and out of it came love and then the world, the sky, the gods and finally animals and people. Eskimos believe something entirely different and it says much about their culture and way of life.

Now you may be asking what Eskimo creation myths have to do with a historical novel about an expedition to find the Northwest Passage which was never seen from again. The answer is quite a lot really. I won't give it away but keep in mind that the author of this novel, Dan Simmons is known mostly for his science fiction and fantasy work. Keeping with that genera, though this book is definitely historical fiction, it has heavy mystical influences and a great deal to do with the creation myths of the people who habitat the cold land near the article circle.
And some fans liked it with reservations:What a Looonngg Strange (Arctic) Trip It's Been!, April 2, 2009
By Michael OConnor "Wordsmith"

The book's erratic narrative style was another bump in the road. Simmons started out having characters relating events in succeeding chapters, which initially jump back and forth chronologically. Then he jettisoned that device, switching to a straight-ahead timeline before ending the book in time-out-of-space native culture mumbo-jumbo. Likewise, about halfway through, he began featuring other characters as narrators who seemed to be introduced mainly to set up a later plot development.

To his credit, many of the characters were well drawn. Crozier, Franklin, Irving, Fitzjames, the monstrous Hickey, etc. were all multi-dimensional, living-breathing people. Lady Silence was another matter. I had trouble believing she was the ultimate survival queen Simmons presented her as.

And, the wee beastie, sorry to say, just didn't scare me. None of the beast's appearances ever induced that wonderful "hair-rising-on-the-back-of-your neck" feeling you get when an author really grabs you. The monster just wasn't scary enough. And his actions--his attacks--often made no sense.

Ice tale with too much hot air, May 14, 2007
By Earthling

Some of the actions were not true to character and were downright stupid at times. Sir John a by-the book commander somehow fails to leave messages along the route as procedure warrants. Dangerous characters were not dealt with adequately only to, shockingly! cause more trouble in the end. Too many pages on how the Navy bought spoiled dog food relabled as Beef Wellington. Don't eat it already and catch some fish. Oh that's right, none of these sailors know how to hunt or fish. Well here are some natives that seem to know how to eat and stay warm, lets just ignore that. Bridgens tell Capt. Crozier there are two volumes in your personal library that tell how to survive here, will he read them? NO!

With the epidemic stupidity there was no need for a mysterious creature that was not all that frightening any way. Yep, it is still following us in the distance lets set up camp now, how scary!

HMS Terror Meets Inuit Mythology, October 26, 2009
By A. Williamson "williaak"

As a fan of supernatural horror, I hate to say this, but the Creature--on which the book markets itself as a "horror tale"--turned out to be an irritating side-plot that only shows up when the story's pacing starts to go stale. The horrific suffering of the crew to starvation, scurvy, frostbite, poisoned food stores, mutinous malcontents, and madness didn't really need a supernatural Creature to add to "The Terror." All these elements are graphically depicted within the engrossing first section of the novel when the ships are first stranded in pack ice and unable sail.

The story also suffers from the author's belated attempt to explain the Creature's existence (after the crew is already dead) through Inuit mythology by recording actual poems and mythological tales in block quotes. Had this theme been present throughout the tale--or at least subtlety referenced--this post-mortem explanation might not have been so frustrating. No one wants to read 700 pages of a novel and "suddenly" be forced to read chapters of quoted mythology disguised as dreams in order to understand the ending.
Comment:  I agree with both the positive and negative comments here. The Terror could've been a masterpiece--the Moby-Dick of Arctic exploration novels--but it has a few too many flaws.

You can read page after page of positive reviews on, but here are some of The Terror's problems:

An unterrifying terror

  • Lady Silence and the Creature are frequently seen in the first third or so of the book. Then they more or less disappear until the end. Why would the Creature suddenly stop killing people and settle for stalking them?

    The Creature is more like a non-scary Hulk than a scary Jack the Ripper. As the critics implied, it's really a plot contrivance. Although it's ostensibly central to The Terror, the story would've worked just as well without it. Better, if you ask me.

  • The Creature is clearly a supernatural being of some sort. It appears through solid ice and leaves body parts as a message. But the men don't catch on; they persist in calling it a giant bear.

  • In The Terror's biggest set piece, the men hold a carnivale on the ice to boost morale. The temperature is -50 degrees F., but no one seems to mind. Although the ship is bone-dry, torches light up the Arctic night. Sailcloth partitions the ice into a maze of spooky rooms. Given that the Creature hasn't appeared for a while, guess what happens at the stroke of midnight, literally. Yes, the ensuing disaster is almost exactly what you'd predict.

  • Lady Silence is something of a "noble savage" cliché. She comes and goes like a stealthy animal, seems to commune with the Creature mystically, and ends up as a sexy Indian princess.

  • Stupid white men

  • Some of the stupidities mentioned above are understandable: the result of the men's Western arrogance. But they do pass up too many chances for survival. I could see trying these approaches and failing or giving up, but to simply ignore them stretches credulity.

  • Possibly the biggest stupidity is that one crewman commits murder and Captain Crozier is certain he's guilty. But Crozier doesn't do anything about him--doesn't condemn him or even lock him up.

  • Despite the fact that (almost) everyone dies, The Terror is a paean to Western man's nobility. In this fictionalization of history, the men aren't to blame for the expedition's failure. A monster stalks and kills them...the ice doesn't break up for several years...the food unexpectedly goes animals are mysterious absent...a "bad seed" corrupts the crew members...etc. Several men are so noble that they essentially commit suicide to avoid an ignoble fate.

    In reality, all we know is that the expedition's food and water were contaminated with lead. No monster stalked them and the other things probably didn't happen either. The men died because of their ignorance and folly, not because of external forces they couldn't have foreseen.

  • Excellent ending

    The Terror is redeemed by its final section. This presents possibly the most realistic, vivid, and compelling portrayal of Inuit life ever. Reading this section, you believe the Natives are far from being "primitive savages." In fact, they're perfectly adapted to their environment and know all the tricks for survival. They can handle the harshest conditions on earth better than we could handle, say, a night in Central Park.

    Really, Dan Simmons could've made The Terror into two books. One, the final fate of the Franklin expedition. Two, a sequel detailing the aftermath among the Inuit. The Terror gives a taste of what the second volume would've been like, but I would've liked a whole novel on the subject. That could've been his masterpiece.

    Despite all this criticism, I give The Terror an 8.5 of 10, which makes it better than most books. If I'd been Simmons's editor, we could've addressed the flaws and made it the magnum opus he evidently wanted it to be. Oh, well.

    For more on The Terror, see The "Other" and The Terror and The Doomed Franklin Expedition. For more on the subject in general, see The Best Indian Books.


    dmarks said...

    "In this fictionalization of history, the men aren't to blame for the expedition's failure."

    I saw it another way... that the often-boneheaded decisions, and the malice of the cannibal upstart, really did them in. Without that, I could see them overcominng the monster's predations.

    dmarks said...

    "The Creature is more like a non-scary Hulk than a scary Jack the Ripper. As the critics implied, it's really a plot contrivance."

    Come to think of it, that description reminds me of the Shrike, the "star" of the author's "Hyperion Cantos", a character who is best at standing around looking cool (what design artist and animator would not jump at the chance to show the Shrike in the forthcoming movie?), being enigmagic, and bumping the plot along here and there.