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The Terror review

A genuinely frightening tales set in the wastes of the Arctic

Author: Dan Simmons

Publisher: Bantam Press

ISBN: 0-59305-762-9

771 pages • £20• Also available in trade paperback (£12.99)


Marrying supernatural horror to one of the greatest tragedies of the
age of exploration might be an odd
concept for a novel, but it leads to but
one recommendation: go out and buy
this book.

At the heart of The Terror is the
terrible fate of Sir John Franklin’s
doomed expedition to chart the
Northwest passage in 1876. This was
a journey that ended in starvation,
disease, cannibalism and possibly
murder after the squadron of two ships,
the Erebus and the Terror, became
locked into the Arctic ice for two long
years. More than 100 men perished on
this ill-starred jaunt. There were no
survivors, and at the time the fate of the
missing men was the source of great
speculation. To this day it remains one
of the great heroic failures of British
exploration, and the actual events that
led to the failure of the venture remain
shrouded in cold polar mystery.

Dan Simmons (an author who is now
well past his 20th book) has taken this
tale as his central thread, but has
chosen to add a wide streak of Inuit
mythology to the story, bringing it
directly into SFX’s purview…

Not only do the sailors and officers
of the expedition have to struggle
against hellish weather, dwindling
supplies, mutiny, starvation and the
relentless cold, but also a terrible
creature that dwells in the ice and
which is picking the crew off one by
one. At first it seems obvious to the
sailors that it’s a particularly ferocious
polar bear, but as time goes on,
and more men are witness to the
terrifying power of the beast, it
becomes apparent that they
are pitted against something
far more powerful and,
perhaps, unnatural…

The novel succeeds in
many regards. Firstly, the
historical setting seems
authentic, and the lives and
behaviours of these men –
based in part on actual
expedition members – adds a
level of realism that one doesn’t
often find in even the best crafted
genre fiction. The Terror
has clearly been diligently
researched, and benefits greatly
from it – you learn a great deal
about science in the mid 19th
century. Secondly, Simmons
builds repetitive phrases about the
environment in an almost musical
manner, and before long you begin
to actually feel cold, as if lost in the
Arctic yourself! Thirdly, the
supernatural element is seamlessly
incorporated. Something like this
could easily have come across as a
sub-Doug McClure adventure – at
best, you might expect a Victorian
version of The Thing – but what you
get is so much more, with the beast in
the ice not only adding to the tension in
a direct sense, but serving very well as a
metaphor for the brutality of nature, a
brutality that also lurks in the more
atavistic corners of the human psyche
and is soon revealed by the dire straits
the men find themselves in.

It’s not quite perfect, however – there
are moments of conversation when the
characters discussing a particular issue
could almost be called Seaman
Explanation and First Mate McGuffin,
but this is a small issue in an otherwise
fantastic achievement. Gripping, well-observed,
and at times genuinely
frightening, The Terror will make you
want to hunt out Simmons’s other
books, too.

Guy Haley

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