Some books become famous when they get their film or TV show versions. And Dan Simmons’ massive novel, The Terror, definitely comes in that category. It was written way back in 2007 and while it did generate some interest, it was not exactly a massive bestseller. However, when a BBC series based on the book and featuring well known actors (and with Ridley Scott as one of the executive producers) was released in 2018 to rave reviews, interest in the book was renewed. You can see the trailer below.
And well, if you like books that are based on unsolved mysteries, then this could be just up your reading alley. The Terror is based on the famous lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. In 1845, two ships – the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus set out from England to find a way to Asia through the Arctic in Canada. The ships which had been used in the Arctic as well as in Antarctica and were among the best of their class. John Franklin was an experienced officer in the Royal Navy and so was his second in command, Captain Francis Crozier. The expedition was expected to herald a new age in exploration and trade and it set off with a lot of fanfare in May 1845. It passed through Greenland and towards the end of the year was met by other ships in the region in July of the same year.
And then it was never heard from again. The ships, the crew of more than a hundred sailors, all seemingly vanished into the Arctic (the ships themselves were only discovered in 2014). A number of rescue expeditions tried to find out what happened and but for a long time, all one had was theories – the ships had sunk, had been abandoned, the crew tried to make its way to safety by walking across the ice (messages were found in some islands) and there were even rumours that with food disappearing, people ate each other to survive.
It is this mystery of the Franklin expedition that Simmons tries to tackle in The Terror. And he does so on an epic scale – the book spans almost a thousand pages. The size of the book is both its strength and its weakness. On the one hand, Simmons is able to recreate the brutal cold of the Arctic and the despair of the sailors who see their friends dying one by one and food ebb away. Yes, this is a fictional retelling but Simmons seems to have done his research well- a number of issues like the effect of weather on the crew and the ships, and how the food that had stored on the ship went bad because of an inefficient sealing process are covered as is the placing of messages that were discovered much later by rescue expeditions. The characters of both Franklin and Crozier are also brought out in careful detail as are those of many crew members. And what makes the narrative compelling is the fact that its focus keeps shifting from one character to another, showing events from their perspectives – yes, even those who Simmons portrays as villains.
All this detail does make for a very gripping narrative, and Simmons throws in an element of horror by inserting a strange creature that is out there and attacking the ships and killing its crew. However, it is also its weak point. The sheer amount of detail and different perspectives can get a little tiring and confusing. Simmons is at his best when describing conspiracies and politics but his grip loosens when he tries to invoke the supernatural (one wonders if it was needed at all). There will come stages when you will simply flip pages because you want the narrative to move.
Still, the sheer scale of The Terror makes it one of the best books to read for anyone who is fascinated by unsolved mysteries, the Arctic or just human behaviour in adversity. No, it is not perfect, but it is the kind of book that will make you shiver as you read about the sub zero temperatures in the Arctic, and the creaking of the wood of ships slowly falling apart, even it is forty degrees outside. At its best (and it has a number of such moments), The Terror can be terrifying.