Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men, aboard two ships ‘HMS Erebus’ and ‘HMS Terror’ departed from England in 1845, and set forth to the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic. Both the ships and its men were lost without a trace, until one of the ships was located on September 2014. The event generally known as ‘Franklin’s lost expedition’ inspired many artistic works ranging from poems to novels and documentaries. Few years after his disappearance, Franklin was portrayed as a great hero, despite his alleged error of judgment that doomed the 128 men. Statues were built, songs were written and some even bestowed him the credit for finding the Northwest Passage (which was actually discovered by Scottish surgeon/explorer John Rae). The huge mistake that’s said to be made by Captain Franklin is that he tried to force his way through Victoria Passage, surrounded by heavy pack-ice, while he could have returned few miles back for shelter. When the ships froze the crewmen set out on foot (they were locked in ice for two winters and ships were abandoned after one year and seven months of waiting). There’s a theory that the men died of lead poisoning due to poor canning of the canned tin goods. However, most of the experts believe that the crew was not well equipped to make land travel (no one possessed the hunting skills or techniques to survive on land). They are also believed to have hauled lot of unwanted, adorable objects on the ice, which quickly exhausted their sledge crews. Finally, the British explorers never sought help from Inuit (Eskimo) or adopted the native’s survival strategies on ice.
Although we have all these theories of what would have happened, there were no concrete answers (at least until the discovery of the ship in 2014). The Franklin Expedition still remains as abode for unanswerable mysteries. Dan Simmons, who was best known for his Hugo Award winning 1989 novel “Hyperion”, released his horror/quasi-historical fiction novel “Terror” in 2007. It’s a part dive into the frozen mysteries of the failed 19th century naval expedition and part Gothic horror fiction, which personifies all the darkness faced by crew in the form of a giant, vicious beast. “Terror” was Simmons’ first foray into historical fiction and has done pretty well in vividly narrating the unceasing miseries faced by old expedition crews in the arctic freeze. The chief element that would intimidate a reader, like the arctic beast that intimidates the characters in the novel, is the book’s length — 936 pages for paperback and 760 pages for hardcover. The length does affect the novel’s momentum at times, but the fascinating details and flawless recreation of an old era was commendable.
“The Terror” starts at a point where the mysteries regarding the Franklin Expedition starts. In the first chapter, the crew is already locked onto ice, confronting a tough winter (averaged -50 below zero). The surprising factor is that the hero of this fictional tale is not old Franklin, but the 53 year old Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, Captain of HMS Terror, a man known for his stern leadership qualities and survival instincts. Franklin is portrayed as an overly religious and rich officer, who personifies everything that was wrong with British Arctic Exploration of 19th century. Franklin had minimal success in his prior expeditions (known in England as ‘the man who ate his shoes’ – he is annoyed by this name since many other man in Arctic expeditions ate lot of unspeakable things). He is shown as a man with arrogant idealism and a believer of impractical rituals. The fact that Sir Franklin brought silverware and other ‘cultural’ necessities to his sprawling private cabin in the ship expresses the ignominious attitude of naval captains. He also comes off as a xenophobic man who strictly refused to adapt the local survival techniques.
Executive officer and commander of Terror Francis Crozier is Franklin’s opposite in many aspects. While he is less famous and less educated or rich than, Crozier is shown to be leader with zero arrogance. As an Irishman in the British Royal Navy, he was denied higher positions despite showing higher competence. He is a realist, has had no luck with love or woman, and unlike Franklin who reads Bible to his men, Crozier reads from the ‘Book of Leviathan’. Crozier’s shipboard justices are mostly practical unlike the unnecessary, lofty practices performed by Franklin. He also knows what Franklin’s weaknesses are and how the Captain’s error in judgment is going to doom them, but he keeps quiet or made to be quiet. By making us recognize with the protagonist Crozier’s superior abilities, Simmons pushes us to feel the unbridled loss. The shrinking rations, merciless winters (with no prospects for summer thaw), the pack-ice strangling the ship from below, putrid tinned food, lack of fresh meat, burgeoning scurvy cases, mutinous elements are all written in a manner which is consistently engaging and passes on the sense of doom. Nevertheless, the visceral impacts are created by the episodes involving arctic beast that walks like a man. The havoc wreaked by monster, explained chillingly in the novel’s first few chapters, becomes a fitting metaphor for Mother Nature itself. At first I imagined the monster to be like ‘yeti’, but the source of inspiration for this preternatural evil was derived from Eskimo mythology. The magnificent set-pieces which makes us imagine the giant beast’s destruction pays homage to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (‘Masque of the Red Death’). “Then the moist reek enveloped him and huge teeth closed on either side of his face, crunching through bone and skull just forward of his ears on both sides of head” – one of favorite passage explaining the monster’s carnage.
Through the rampage of arctic beast and the rituals of Eskimo people, author Simmons records his condemnation for western civilization and its unchecked arrogance on foreign lands. While John Franklin has the characteristics of ‘decorated fool’, similar to modern American politicians seeking ‘glory’, the Eskimo culture is painted as one which serves under & for nature (not grand ideologies and false dreams). Simmons’ narrative impulse and prose carries the readers forward, trying its best to not set in boredom. His research into the real-life characters and the historical events could be felt in every sentence, defining the mechanisms in an expedition ship and its chain of command. Ultimately, if I felt a little unsatisfied of the novel, it’s not from reading the alleged horrors that would have been experienced by real men of the expedition (especially the description of ‘scurvy’ is so spine-tingling). The creature’s appearance gradually becomes only a dramatic device, to break off the monotonous suffering in the arctic. The real villain of the tale, ‘Hickey’ is pretty much a reprobate from Stephen King’s world and his predictable villainy only makes him a caricature. There was enough depth in the character arc of Crozier and Lady Silence aka ‘Esquimaux Witch’, but the profundity gets mired in the sprawling length. The sporadic destruction of ‘thing on the ice’ in the first half of the book was more terrifying than its customary murders in the second-half of the book. The most disappointing aspect of the novel for me is the final leg of the tale, when Crozier goes through a transformation. The Eskimo mythologies are fascinating, but it’s written like something we read out of a Wikipedia page. Since as a reader we are also so exhausted in getting to that point, we read through it quickly, eager to know what really happens at the end. What’s said in the chapters is interesting, but the way it is written is a bad definition of ‘page-turner’ (nevertheless, I liked the denouement).
“The Terror” makes up for a compelling reading experience as the author has attempted to merge historical fiction, mythology, and Gothic horror. Praise Mr. Simmons, if your reading experience bestowed upon you nightmares and restless sleep.