I would like to discuss this monster of a novel from Dan Simmons. The Terror has been recently adapted as a limited television series airing on AMC. I have not watched the series, yet, as I first want to finish reading the novel. Simmons is a versatile writer, having published novels in an array of genres, from horror to science-fiction/fantasy to hard-boiled crime noir. Since reading his novels, Song of Kali and Summer of Night, he has quickly become one of my favorite authors, especially being one of the rare breed of literary genre writers. What do I mean by literary? His writing is strong, engaging, and often hides great depth in its subtext. Stephen King has been quoted as saying his own writing “is the equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” but Simmons might be likened at least to fine surf and turf (by the way, King’s writing has progressed significantly from its pulp-ish origins—not to criticize pulp in any way, as it too has its place in fiction, as we will see in later installments; King brings greater pathos to his more recent works).
One-third of the way through this hefty novel, and it is clear to me this could be equated to the Moby Dick of this type of genre fiction. A novel based in fact, The Terror recounts the tragedies that befell two British Discovery Service ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, that became stranded in the upper reaches of the Canadian Arctic in the mid-nineteenth century while in search of the elusive Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. This event is a matter of historical record. However, what Simmons suggests befalls the stranded seamen during the several years they remain trapped in the immutable and unforgiving ice pack, is not. Some thing is out there on the ice, and it is hunting them.
I compare this novel to Melville’s Moby Dick more so because Simmons takes great pains to immerse the reader in the period, the indifference and character of the Arctic environment, as well as life aboard a nineteenth-century sailing vessel. I’ve read some reviews that claim such focus on details is excessive and unnecessary, that it ruins the pace of the novel, that it is repetitive, and that a good third to half of the novel could have been excised from the final draft. Sadly, we are in an age characterized by the need for instant gratification, which a novel is not necessarily, in all cases, intended to satisfy. What is especially wonderful about the novel as a form of artistic expression is that such a form permits an author to craft a story that breathes, that can be immersive, and that can transport readers outside of their present realities into ones fully realized, rich with detail and colored with characters who can make this other reality truly come alive.
The Terror is peopled with a vast number of characters. If I had one complaint, thus far, about the novel it would be the inability to keep straight the minor characters. In the end, one realizes that a story such as this must have its people-fodder, which roles these minor characters certainly fulfill. The story is told such that the chapters are given to the reader through the major characters’ points of view. However, this does not reduce the suspense ingrained in the novel. It is made clear early on that even the major characters are vulnerable to the appetites of the thing out on the ice. But what is it that stalks the stranded seamen?
At this point in my reading (roughly one-third completed), I give The Terror high praise. It is a novel that, with its length, provides me with the opportunity to live inside this historical-fictional world Simmons as created. And it is a stay worth savoring.
I will respond at a later date with a critique of the limited series as well as final thoughts on and comparison to the novel.
Dan Simmons, by the way, lives in or near Golden, Colorado:
Mr. Simmons, if by some miracle you ever stumble across this (or the articles about your other books I intend to write, it would be an honor to meet and chat with you—aspiring writer to accomplished writer.
Yes, I know. Shameless appeal.
Until our next respite at Rest Area 194…