Sunday, January 28, 2007
In the dark days of winter, nothing cheers you up quite like an 800-page novel about a doomed Arctic expedition.
That's one way to look at Dan Simmons' brilliant new novel THE TERROR. Simmons, whose other novels span a variety of genres (his first book was the breakthrough horror tale, THE SONG OF KALI), has come up with an idea that, at first, seems simplicity itself. He takes as the basis of his story the true-life tale of the Franklin Expedition, an 1845 voyage by two British ships, the Erebus and The Terror, to the Arctic to explore the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The two ships had 134 men between them and supplies that would supposedly last five years. Historians surmise that with the two ships hopelessly icebound, the surviving 129 crew members set off by land in hope of finding open water or rescue by a whaling ship. All of them perished on the ice, from accident or starvation. Remains of the crew members - some showing the marks of cannibalism - were later found.
There have been many explanations for what happened to Franklin's men, one of the most plausible being that their tinned provisions were tainted and crew members were struck down with lead poisoning. In Simmons' novel, there's an even greater threat stalking the men. A savage, almost mythical, beast that lives on the ice and hunts them down one by one.
Since history tells us the expedition had no survivors, you'd think that element of suspense - who lives, who dies - would be absent from the novel. But Simmons has woven the whole thing into a compelling epic of survival and horror and courage. It's an ice-cold fever dream that draws you in deeper with each chapter, each new trial the survivors face. And though Simmons has dedicated the book to the makers of the 1951 film "The Thing," THE TERROR is no pulp thriller. It's deadly serious and deeply involving. Not only is it one of the best horror novels in years, it's one of the best horror novels ever.