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Wednesday, 27 May 2009 17:33

Death in the arctic

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The Terror by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown and Company. 2007. 769 pages.

Dear readers, let’s begin by establishing two contrary conclusions regarding this massive, painstakingly researched novel: First, the writing in The Terror is masterful; it reeks of atmosphere, intrigue and suspense. Second, I cannot, in all honesty, recommend this book to readers who are troubled by a narrative that is steeped in unrelenting suffering and despair. Having said that, let me reiterate: The Terror is an astonishing work.

The Terror is a fictionalized (and fantasized) account of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition (1845-1848) to the Artic — purportedly, to find the illusive Northwest Passage. Initially, the expedition consists of two ships — The Terror (Sir John Franklin commanding), and The Erebus under Commander James Fitzjames. The two crews total 126 men. However, within a few weeks of reaching the Artic Circle, both ships are locked in a vast waste of ice. Artic nights are 22 hours long, and the temperature rarely rises above 50 below zero.

The hardship endured by the members of this expedition borders on the unbelievable: frostbite, gangrene, amputations (mostly feet and fingers), scurvy and before this tale is finished, cannibalism. Eventually, Franklin and Fitzjames discover that the ship’s canned foods have been poorly processed in London and the majority of it is spoiled and/or contaminated. As the daily allowance of liquor (grog) diminishes, the likelihood of mutiny increases. Coal is running out and the ice field surrounding the ships is expanding. A thaw seems unlikely, and as the “pressure” ice begins to literary squeeze the two ships to the point of shattering the outer hull, Franklin and Fitzjames reluctantly discuss the possibility that they might eventually abandon the vessels and attempt to drag sleighs loaded with diminishing provisions to a seaport or Esquimaux (19th century spelling of “Eskimo”) village. Success of such a venture is deemed unlikely.

However, all of these misfortunes combined do not represent a terror as great as “the thing on the ice.” There is something huge, white and deadly (much larger than a polar bear), which constantly circles the ships. Almost at its leisure, it snatches victims from the decks and even enters the ships, mangling and slaughtering its hapless victims. When the crew makes inept attempts to hunt or fish (all of the wildlife seems to have mysteriously disappeared), the “thing” murders the hunters, frequently beheading and disemboweling them.

In a series of terrifying encounters, “the thing” kills Sir John Franklin, slaughters three of the expedition’s four physicians and manages to snatch the majority of the trained seaman from the decks. Fitzjames dies of a combination of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. Eventually, the new captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier, attempts to marshal his forces and plan a retreat. Despite a demented, mutinous caulkers mate (who may be more dangerous than “the thing on the ice,” Crozier overcomes his own alcoholism and mental depression, unites the starving seaman of both ships and begins a painful (and pointless) journey.

Let me assure you that this synopsis barely scratches the surface of this novel. I haven’t mentioned Lady Silence, a beautiful Esquimaux girl who does not have a tongue. Considered a “Jonah” (jinx) by the seaman, she moves quietly among the starving men, managing to find food and shelter for herself in the frozen vastness beyond the ships.

During the latter half of The Terror, Francis Crozier emerges as one of the most engaging protagonists that I have encountered in recent fiction. After he becomes the official leader of the survivors, he frequently conducts religious services for the dead in which he reads passages from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. He also “hallucinates” and is blessed (or cursed) with “second sight.” (I’m not likely to forget the episode in which Crozier “channels” the infamous Fox sisters in upstate New York.) Suffice it to say that eventually, the reader will discover a mysterious link (or symbiosis) between Crozier, Lady Silence and the “thing on the ice.”

The Terror shows evidence of exhaustive research. This novel is packed with fascinating details about the Arctic and seaman, such as “growler” icebergs, ice that “screams,” Welsh wigs, the habits of Norway rats, seracs and a landscape that sometimes glows blue due to magnetism. There are deadly lightning and hailstorms, vibrating stars, a surreal “Carnivale,” (right out of Edgar Allen Poe) and tales of shaman who die laughing.

Most fascinating of all is a “Creation Myth” that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Cherokees myths about “the beginning.” However, author Simmons also presents a concluding episode that includes a grotesque parody of the Catholic Communion service that may leave readers stunned. If you read this one, please tell me what you think about the conclusion. Visit my blog: hollernotes.blogspot.com/.

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