Reviewed by Christy H.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin of Great Britain’s Royal Navy departed in search of the North West Passage with two ships in his command: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. By the winter of 1846 both ships had frozen in the ice but that was to be expected. Like the previous year, they anticipated they would be thawed out again in spring to continue their journey. But that didn’t happen. A cold summer came and went and still they were frozen in place. No one was worried, however. They had plenty of canned food – enough to last them several years if need be. And surely, the spring of 1848 would finally bring about a thaw. But it didn’t. And to make matters worse their inadequately canned foods began to spoil. It was time to worry.
Captain Crozier, of HMS Terror, made the difficult decision to abandon the still-frozen ships in April of 1848 in an attempt to make progress by land and ice. Dan Simmons wrote a fictionalized version of these events in his novel The Terror.
The book begins right smack in the middle. The crew is already on their second winter in the ice, and they’ve already made contact with a mysterious ice monster unlike anything they’ve ever seen. It was a little startling being plunged into a story with so much already taking place but I got my bearings quickly enough. I appreciate that the author took his time in setting up the atmosphere and the mood but I also felt like there was a lot of detail that wasn’t necessary to the story and only served to bloat the book. At over 700 pages, I don’t think it would’ve suffered from a trim down.
That’s not to say I disliked the book. I actually loved it. I’ve never heard of ships getting frozen in place during expeditions but it seems it was a frequent enough occurrence. That by itself is terrifying enough. But add to that equation: nights that last days, a diminishing food supply, several unsavory men on the cusp of mutiny, bone chilling temperatures that never let up, being literally in the middle of nowhere, the threat of scurvy, and a giant monster not of this earth, and you’ve got yourself a deeply unsettling horror novel. The book really stuck with me – not so much because of the monster, who does plenty of his own damage, sure, but because of the grotesque descriptions of scurvy and the lengths desperate men go to survive. It focuses less on its supernatural horror and more on the horrors of the natural world, human beings and disease alike. When worst comes to worst you can’t really control either.