I’d forgotten how dramatic lightning can be.*
It was around 830 on a Friday night. The husband had come home not too long ago and informed me that a thunderstorm was on its way. Wee reader was asleep upstairs and I was headed up myself with Dan Simmons’ The Terror in hand. The moment I stepped from the family room into the dark corridor, lightning flashed, and threw everything into a sudden heart-stopping illumination. I stepped back into the lit room and put the book back down as the sky thundered away. I didn’t have the heart to read it anymore! Yeah I’m the kind who doesn’t watch horror movies, and is too chicken to read this book on a stormy night.
I finally picked it up again the next day, in broad daylight. And was swept up in this… well I don’t know what to call this book. Is it historical fiction? Kind of, as it is based on Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. However, there is also a bit of a horror-fantasy aspect to The Terror, which was nominated for the British Fantasy Award in 2008. As if being stranded (the two ships are stuck in ice) in the frozen desolate Arctic wasn’t enough (goodness, how horror-movie like is scurvy? Blood oozes from everywhere!), Simmons throws in a monster. A huge beast that seems to stalk the crew wherever they go. And a tongue-less mysterious Eskimo girl who has joined them onboard.
“In addition to the insidious night and the even more insidious creeping cold, the cold of death, Goodsir realized, the cold of the grave and of the black cliff wall above the Beechey Island headstones, there was the noise; the surgeon had thought himself accustomed to the groan of ship’s timbers, occasional creakings and snappings of supercold ship’s metal in the dark of two winters, and the constant noise antics of the ice holding the ship in its vise, but out here, with nothing separating his body from the ice except a few layers of wool and wolfskin, the groaning and movement of the ice beneath him was terrible. It was like trying to sleep on the belly of a living beast. The sense of the ice moving beneath him, however, exaggerated, was real enough to give him vertigo as he curled more tightly into a feral position.”
It’s not your typical shiver-inducing read but I reckon The Terror has its place among the RIP lists. It has its creepy moments, not just due to the great beast that stalks them but also thanks to human nature – and perhaps that makes it even more creepy. The men die slowly, from starvation, from disease, from the extreme conditions, and also from the monster. And that is why it’s such a monstrously big book. Because there are a lot of characters, some of them better flesh out than others, such as the admirable Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, and the doctor Goodsir whose thoughts feature in his diary entries. And here is where I really admired Simmons, for he manages to make the men distinguishable, memorable.
And there is the fascinating mystery of polar exploration. I have to admit being pretty determined right from the start that I would like this book. Polar exploration is a minor fascination for me. I mean, what drove these men out there, to the unknown? And when they were barely equipped to cope with the conditions? Woolen clothing, for instance, which hardly ever dried. Canned food that was rotting away! It makes me grateful that I am sitting in my house, in a T-shirt and shorts, in 85 degree weather.
The Terror was exciting, suspenseful, a little creepy and strange. However, the last section didn’t seem to quite fit in all that well with the rest of the book though, and threw me off slightly. But I’d still say that it was worth ploughing through.
* funny how lightning can make the news here. Back home in Singapore, every storm (and there are too many) is a sound and light show. It always terrifies me to walk home from the bus stop in the rain, clutching my umbrella, hoping I wouldn’t be as unlucky as to be hit by a falling branch or worse, lightning itself.