How do you create suspense in a novel based on a real tragedy? Dan Simmons does an admirable job of showing us in “The Terror”, a fictional take on the events of the ill-fated 19th century Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
History tells us the British Empire dispatched H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror in 1845, under the command of Sir John Franklin, to find the fabled Northwest Passage – a coveted hypothetical route through the labyrinth of islands, pack ice and ice bergs choking Canada’s arctic waters. The brutal arctic had hurled back many previous attempts (including one by the legendary Captain James Cook via the Bering Strait) and would block many others to come. Franklin’s voyage was beset with bad omens; serious command errors were made; the ships became ice-locked; coal supplies ran low; food poisoning, scurvy and the elements ravaged the crew; the vessels had to be abandoned; and eventually, those desperate men left turned on each other in cannibalism. None of them made it out of the arctic. Many questions about the tragedy still remain unanswered.
As if the hardships suffered by the crew weren’t enough, Simmons, while sticking close to the facts, seasons his tale with a supernatural element of suspense: some thing is also out there in the snowy wastes… not a polar bear (as if they weren’t deadly enough), but something larger, ancient, and full of malice and cunning. Some thing that is deliberately stalking the crew, and not merely for a single, bloody wipe-out, but rather in a seemingly careful strategy designed to deprive the men of the most skilled and stabilizing of their number and of their morale.
On one level, Simmons is masterfully indulging in his love of the tale of Beowulf and Grendel. And yet there are other ways to interpret the nature of the Terror. John Clute has done an excellent job of shedding light on the beast in his Excessive Candour column on the SciFi channel site entitled “In the Belly of the Thing”, so there’s no need for me to repeat him.
Rather, I’d like to explore some of the ways in which the metaphor of passage opens up in the story. For passage in “The Terror” refers to far more than just a route through a geographical obstacle course. To be sure, there are plenty of passages over water (of the usually frozen, but on rare occasions liquid, variety) – that of Erebus and Terror across the Atlantic to the Arctic Ocean and their eventual passage to the bottom There’s the treacherous weather and Terror-plagued run between the two ships once they’ve become ice-bound. There’s the trek from the abandoned ships to King William Land. Then there are the many other voyages across the island and finally away from it as the survivors go their separate ways. It’s been noted untold times that a water journey is metaphorically a trip into the self and that certainly holds true in “The Terror” – these ordeals across the ice are merely backdrops for the real passages throughout the novel.
The entrance tunnels into the igloos of Lady Silence, the mysterious Inuit who haunts the expedition, serve as a literal passage from the world of the British crew into that of the native people able to live off the land. They also serve as bridges for understanding between two of the explorers and the woman.
The coloured maze of Carnivale tents inspired by Edgar Allan Poe reflects the crew’s descent into hopelessness and terror amidst the dark of their winter prison where time passes but the outside never changes and death strikes with sudden, shocking violence.
There are passages from books. Doomed Franklin aboard the flagship Erebus is fond of sermonizing and bores or downright loses his crew with excerpts from the Bible about the road to salvation. Captain Francis Crozier of the Terror, on the other hand, has little use for religion and rouses great interest from his largely uneducated men with quotes from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” about life being “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”. While Crozier’s choice may be more obviously appropriate in the context of the story, in a strange and unexpected way, Franklin’s sermon about Jonah isn’t necessarily off either.
There are numerous points with a number of characters where we focus on the passage of air/breath and thus soul into and out of bodies: from the nearly-decapitated young seaman whose body refuses to quit breathing, to the frightening music of the Terror with its special “instrument” on the ice, to the Terror’s encounter with the vicious Mr. Hickey.
And there are rites of passage. Hickey uses manipulation and worse to rise in status. Dr. Goodsir, who begins the novel as somewhat effete, volunteers to engage in physical toil with the other men and over the course of his journey proves his mettle and earns respect.
Given our foreknowledge of the fatal outcome of the voyage, we also know that in signing on to the expedition, the men have booked passage not on Erebus or Terror, but rather with Anubis.
Captain Crozier himself navigates many passages throughout the course of “The Terror”. Among them is that of his final days drunkenness, through detox delirium (plunging into memory and drifting into prescience) and into cold sobriety. His greatest journey though is into understanding of and resignation to the frightening and alien road necessary for survival.
And these passages through terror are but the tip of the iceberg.