Monday, January 07, 2008

Books: As if slowly starving to death in the arctic wasn't crappy enough already.

Dan Simmons is a hardworking journeyman writer who has, for decades now, happily hopped from genre to genre, steadily producing reliable solid entertainments. Such writers are not uncommon in the ghettos of genre lit: they produce a huge body of work and patiently wait the day when history decides to elevate them to the status of "forgotten genius" or, more likely, lets them fall into the collective forgetting of the genre fan's group-consciousness. With The Terror, his 2007 genre-bending historical fiction/adventure/fantasy/horror novel, Simmons may have short-circuited the normal critical appraisal and secured himself an A-list slot among those genre writers who have leapt from the genre ghetto into the mainstream.

The Terror is a meticulously-detailed, fantastically-imagined novel that fills in the blanks on one of maritime history's most enduring mysteries: the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. And there are plenty of blanks to fill. After nearly three centuries of failure, the British Admiralty decided to get serious about this stuff and authorized Sir John Franklin, experienced arctic explorer and former colonial governor of Tasmania, to make another attempt. The expedition would sail on The Erebus and The Terror, two arctic exploration ships that featured several cutting-edge technologies: new reinforced hulls that pre-figured the later iron-clads, a steam hating system, retractable iron propellers and rudders that were driven by train engines ad could be pulled up out of freezing water to prevent their being damaged during arctic winters. The crew was a hand-selected collection of experienced arctic explorers, seasoned sailors, and scientific experts. The expedition was fitted-out with more than three-years worth of fuel and food. Never was any expedition for the passage so well staffed and equipped.

The expedition set sail from Greenhithe, England on the morning of May 19, 1845. Captain Dannett, of the whaler Prince of Wales, encountered them in Melville Bay moored to an iceberg in the summer of 1845.

And that was the last time anybody saw them alive.

Rescue and research expeditions have since found scraps of the doomed expedition. But the two ships have never been found and no journals or logs have ever been recovered.

Working with such a broad, blank canvass, Simmons creates an epic story that pits the expedition crew against the murderous arctic conditions and against a seemingly unstoppable killer beast prowling the frozen wasteland. Not to get all high-concept on this review, but think of some bizarre combination of Poe and C. S. Forester. Simmons' historical research is exhaustive and detailed, but he doesn't let his commitment to rigorous detail stop him from creating a surreal and magical nightmare beast and using it the way Peter Benchley used his own toothy white monster. The result is an excellent fusion of historical fiction and gothic fantasy – a fully realized artic exploration adventure that weaves in and out of top-notch horror tale. (If these genres are all that different: many of the details of arctic exploration are as scary and horrific as any imaginary threat a horror writer cold come up with. I'd take getting eaten by an abominable snowman over death by scurvy any day.)

The book's not perfect. Simmons' book can be a slog. At 700+ pages, it isn't a quick read. Further, Simmons' exhaustive research sometimes gets a little exhausting. For example, tangential scenes involving the Fox sisters, two fraud spiritualists who feature as stray footnotes in the story of the actual Franklin expedition, pop up twice without much explanation for readers who are less versed in arctic exploration lore. Still, for the most part, Simmons doesn't waste his research. I rarely felt that Simmons was filling pages with unprocessed research notes, exposition for the sake of using details he discovered but couldn't work into the narrative in any thematically important way. Though he does fill his pages: Darwin, colonialism, politics, the works of Poe, Eskimo mythology, environmentalism, and class warfare all get play on the pages of Simmons' book. In less confident hands, this would be a mess. But Simmons lets his strong narrative sense take control and this keeps the book from chasing down some random tangential rabbit hole.

All and all, The Terror is not only one of the best horror novels in recent memory, it’s a great read for non-genre fans. It's available in a trade paperback format - $15.00 from Back Bay Books – less than the cost of dinner and a movie.


Heather Santrous said...

I often like books/movies that weave history with fiction. I have always found that it help put me in the story better since there are things that actually happened. Might be a book I will have to check out sometime.

Anonymous said...

Sounds very cool.
Although I have to wonder about the wisdom in naming a ship, The Terror...

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

I think Simmons does a great job blending the factual and fictional elements. Not that the story is put forth as a theory of what happened or anything like that - I don't think anybody is seriously proposing a giant monster attacked the Franklin expedition. Still, it all works.

What with all the freezing in it, it might make for great summer reading when classes and testing finally cut you some slack.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Catty,

They were going to name it The Horrific and Quite Painful Wasting Death Inevitable to the Arctic Climates - but it was too long for bow.

Kidding aside, The Terror was a refitted warship. Specifically, it was built to use mortars to bomb fixed positions on land. In that context, The Terror was meant to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy. It actually saw some action in the War of 1812. After its military service, it was refitted for arctic exploration - and it was part of two non-disastrous expeditions before the Franklin disaster. Still, I see your point: as an doomed exploration vessel, it just seems like somebody was asking for it.