What was the British Navy thinking when they picked the ships for the last ill-fated Franklin Expedition on 1845? One would expect that ships sent out on what was thought to be a noble enterprise would have inspiring names like Excelsior and Triumph. Instead the crews are sent to find the Northwest Passage in ships named Erebus (for darkness and shadow; a part of Hades) and Terror. Talk about your real life foreshadowing.
The story of this expedition is well known by now, thanks in large part to Pierre Berton’s Arctic Grail, one of the three most important sources that Dan Simmons cites in his research notes at the back of this novel. He is also fond of Berton’s last book, Prisoners of the North, and of Berton House writer-in-residence Ken McGoogan’s Fatal Passage, which tells the story of how John Rae’s reached his conclusions about the expedition’s fate.
Those books are just at the tip of his research, though. The list of print material alone runs to three pages and, if I have a serious quibble with Simmons’ novel, it’s that he seemed determined to show all of his work. I found myself skimming over details the way I pass by some of the dinner menus in long winded Russian novels.
I might as well get all of my complaints out of the way at once. I started reading this book in November and finished it just a few weeks ago. The depth of winter is not the best time to be reading a novel filled with darkness, cold, starvation, insanity and extreme hardship.
The 67 chapters in the book do break into about four sections and I found myself setting the tome aside and seeking respite in other types of writing numerous times along the way. I must have read two dozen other books while I was wading through this one, but I always knew I would come back to it, shoulder its undeniable weight of gloom, and soldier on, just like those doomed sailors marching across the ice in search of rescue.
So, to continue the image, Terror was tough sledding, but it was also worthwhile.
The story is told from many points of view and from many vantage points. While it opens through the eyes of its central character, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, after the death of expedition leader Sir John Franklin, there are many chapters that flash back to before Franklin’s passing and chronicle some of the mistakes that trapped the two ships somewhere near King William Island in 1848.
We have chapters from the points of view of Crozier; Goodkind, the expedition’s doctor, Franklin himself; and various crew members, some honourable and some not. We move back and forth through the lives of these men, getting enough background on each that we will feel something when they meet their almost inevitable demise.
Aside from the Arctic winters, scurvy, and terrible living conditions, something - no, some THING - is preying on the expedition, savagely murdering the members of the crew and leaving bits of them behind as gruesome warnings. This is the fantasy element, a shape shifting tuunbaq, introduced from Inuit legend and myth, that Simmons has incorporated into the book and, since no one really knows exactly what happened to the crews, it does not seem out of place here.
As in the very best horror stories (think of the difference between the movie Alien and all of its sequels), we seldom see the actual beast, but are left in awe of its shadow and of the carnage it leaves behind it. We do not learn just what it is until the mixture of Inuit legend and Crozier’s narrative which wraps up the story beginning with chapter 62.
Simmons is not the first author to assume a survivor from this expedition, Mordecai Richler pulled a similar trick in Solomon Gursky Was Here. In a sense a writer pretty much has to do this or else the story becomes one of unrelieved death and destruction. This is not to say that Simmons contrives to have a happy ending, but there is some personal growth, almost redemption, in store for the only survivor of this debacle.
I would remiss if I did not mention the sole female character in the book’s main story arc. There are other women to be found in the memories of the men, but the Lady Silence, a mysterious Inuit woman who has no tongue (for reasons which are made clear late in the book) is a powerful creation, and the only female any where near the two doomed ships. Whether she is friend or foe to the crews is something that remains unresolved in most of their minds, bu she plays a crucial role in how the story works out.
I would have to say that Simmons subscribes somewhat to the Berton and Rae thesis that the Franklin expedition was most abominably provisioned and badly led, and that some blame for their fate rests with the makers of the tinned provisions they took with them. However, there are more kinds of insanity then that brought on by food and lead poisoning, and Simmons explores a number of varieties here.
It’s a powerful novel, but don’t expect it to be light reading.