“You have to read it to the end” – sad but true of “The Terror” by Dan Simmons. That’s 766 pages! Ugh! At times, it’s too long and arduous. The prose is at times very thick – seems like one paragraphs consists of one sentence. And there’s so much detail. Too much detail most of the time. But a strong undercurrent of mystery, thrill, and promise of love kept me reading anyway.
“The Terror” is about the doomed Franklin expedition of two English naval ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which get stuck and lost in the ice for years in the mid-1800’s, while their crew slowly succumb to exposure to extreme cold, scurvy, mutiny and cannibalism. The crux of their fate is true. They all die. The story of how it all happened is made up, especially the part about a Yeti-like creature that stalks them, terrorizes them, kills them, and perhaps, sends many of their souls to their own personal hells.
Yeah, this is supposed to be a “horror” novel. And yes, it sort of lives up to that stereotype. Not completely, though. In fact, in the end, it is actually a love story. Surprise!
For most of the book, various captains, officers, mates, doctors, and ship hands tell their perspective of a slow, cold, brutal, deathly and painful (not sure which is worse) descent into an otherwise inevitable mass death above the arctic circle. If you’ve picked up this book, you probably already know that everyone dies (ahem … or so you think). What you don’t know is how it all happens. That’s where Dan Simmons steps in to help us all out. Very bad things happen. You know this because Stephen King has good things to say on the back of the cover jacket of this tome.
What you don’t know at first (unless you read this review first) is that in all that terror, there is a budding love affair about to happen. Once the ships are hopelessly stuck in the ice, a search party is sent out to discover options for survival. They come across an Esquimaux girl and her father. The girl cannot speak because she’s had her tongue chewed out, by the monster stalking the ships’ crew no less. She communicates with the beast on her time off on the ice. Her father gets killed by the reactionary shipmates. Lady Silence, as they call her, shadows much of the unfortunate events, as the seamen are slowly killed off by the ice-monster-thing, and other accidents, but mostly the thing.
“I was always waiting for you,” thinks Silence to Captain Crozier at page 760 of the book. Silence is clairvoyant, like Crozier, something he suspected for most of his life but didn’t own up to in his previous English-puritanical-rejecting-supernatural world. With her supernatural abilities, including the ability to commune with and appease the monster, which is an embodiment of an Inuit legend, she had knowingly travelled far north, to an area with little food even for Equifax, to meet the to-be stranded Crozier and marry him. Through everything, with Silence witnessing much of, and doing nothing about, the horrors happening to the crews of the two ships, she is waiting for Crozier, who is to be the sole survivor of the catastrophe.
Crozier doesn’t make it unscathed, of course, and after Crozier is revived by Silence following a mutinous attack by some of his crew, he learns how to survive on the ice with Silence – hunt seal, make and use warm clothing, build igloos – and he eventually marries her, and also joins her as his destined partnership with her as the spiritual soothsayer of the monster on the ice, which means it also eats out his tongue. No worries. He and Silence can think to each other!
After all that, Crozier-ala-Esquimaux hears Inuit rumors of his old ship (old life) being found on the ice. He and Silence travel there, and rummage through vessel. While on board he finds a “corpse” in his bunk, “a man about Crozier’s height.” Who is the corpse in Crozier’s bunk? The light summer clothes worn “gave no clue to his identity. Crozier had no wish at all to go through his pockets.”
But remember that “The Terror” takes place in an alternate reality in an icy land cut off from everything real and unreal, where Inuit legends actually exist, clairvoyance is the bread and butter of life, and alternate realities of what may have happened can all come true. Before Crozier finally commits to stay with Silence (and the monster) on the ice, he goes through a series of choices – return to England and face court martial and a life of failure; fake amnesia, go to America, and start a new life with Silence, who would waste away in misery of modern entrapments and foreign social norms; he could even try to find his men and ships on the ice, and he tried to do that a few times but Silence stopped him before he was fully recovered. Maybe all of these alternatives exist in the world of Dan Simmons. With the corpse of the derelict Terror, Crozier gets a glimpse of what would have happened to him if he’d left Silence, and tried to live up to his duty to ‘go down with the ship.’
Frankly, it seems obvious, the corpse has to be Crozier, which doesn’t mean that he also set his old ship on fire with oil and gunpowder, and burnt it until it sank to the sea floor. From there, Crozier lives out his magical life with Silence and children, a revered and even feared Esquimaux. Every wester man’s fantasy — to leave the complexities of this world behind, and live a simple life, somewhere far and away, going native. (See e.g. “Shogun” by James Clavell.) Yes, through all the detail and drudgery of “The Terror,” it is well worth reading this gem of a love story.
By Austin Reams
Copyright 2019 Austin Reams
Review of “The Terror” by Dan Simmons, 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-316-01744-2, ISBN-10: 0-316-01744-2