Sunday, 21 September 2008
The Terror - Dan Simmons
As you know, when I first began this book, I could barely stop reading it. About half-way through I took a break, it was so intense, and I had been reading it non-stop. When I was ready, I picked it up again, and finished it in 24 hours. Again, I could not put it down! It is that good. I could not stop reading it.
So what was so gripping, you ask? How could a polar expedition to find the Northwest Passage - Franklin's 1845 expedition - be so thrilling an adventure in horror that I was left gasping for air sometimes? Because it is a story that is based in part on real events, and Simmons is a master at recreating prosaic details of life at sea. In this case, they are encased in ice, for almost the entire novel. And for someone like me, who dreads the onslaught of winter, just the idea of being stuck in the arctic where it is colder beyond anything - anywhere - else on earth, an unrelenting cold for 8 months of the year, with snow 10 months of the year - and where they are it only melts on the land so there is always blinding light then - this would be my hell on earth. So from the opening line: 'Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts.' to Paragraph 2 beginning: 'The temperature is -50 Fahrenheit and dropping fast.' my attention was caught, spell-bound.
I have to admit that at the beginning, I was desperately afraid this was going to be about polar bears, and for the first 40 pages despite the hypnotic storytelling, I almost put the book down because I wasn't going to read a 700 page novel about polar bears eating people - not scary to someone who every winter hears stories of the polar bears coming down to eat the garbage in Churchill Manitoba, and the bears have to be tranquilized and returned up North - they do eat people, which is real-life horrifying enough. I wanted a supernatural thriller, and the back blurb had led me to believe it was. So, despite my misgivings and because of the amazing storytelling, I presevered, and by page 75 I began to relax. There ARE polar bears, but they are not the threat at all. There is very much a supernatural presence here, and how it is explained is part of the almost unearthly beauty of this book. Because this book is about more than facing the supernatural, it's about survival. Survival in inhuman conditions, with over 100 other men. There - I saw you shiver. You know what I mean. Anything can happen with that many people trapped on two ships for two years, slowly going nowhere, living off what they brought with them.
This is such a satisfying horror novel. The men on the ships are each characters in their own right, whether they get a paragraph or chapters to themselves. The ice and snow and temperatures - the North - is another prominent feature. If you are like me, and dislike winter, then make sure you have plenty of hot things around you. (Hmm, I wonder if this is why I began drinking hot chocolate at night, late last week?)
I have mentioned earlier that this is a gripping read. It is. The tension is stretched taut in this book, so much so that I read long into the night, over meals, whenever I could, skipping whatever wasn't necessary to do - and disliking what I had to do that took me away from reading! - I had to get back as quickly as I could to the story, and the characters. I liked some of them so much - Capt Crozier, Lt Irving were among my favourites - and the revelation of what happens as they lay trapped in the ice is riveting.
Shadowing everything is the realization that this is the voyage that Franklin and his men did not come back from. This book is a blend of fact - the voyage, the ship life, a real-life expedition to the North - and fiction - the creature that is killing them off, the Inuit people who may or may not save them, the fictionalization of many of the characters. Just because the book is based on the expedition does not mean all the characters are real - and unlike many real-life 'memoirs' that have the book community examining veracity vs story, this is a novel,unabashedly so, and the blend of the real with pure imagination makes for an unforgettable horror novel.
I loved it.
There is true terror among these pages, and a growing horror at the fate that befalls the men. The true horror isn't just the supernatural element but also what happens to the crew on two ships - The Erebus and The Terror - over the long 2 years they have been frozen in the ice. By taking a real-life disastrous expedition and adding another darker element to it, the book is a delicious mix of gut-wrenching horror and creepiness. It is a perfect read for this horror challenge, for the lengthening evenings as fall arrives (tomorrow!) and lurking on the horizon, cold and snowy winter.
The real reason to read horror and ghost stories is to discover how contact with fear, in whatever shape it comes in, can be faced and survived. Whether we create the horror from within or without is an ongoing debate for psychologists, which the next book I am going to review in my next post, The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff, also touches on. The experience of reading horror gives us clues in how to survive the experience of facing horror. At least, that's one reason among many for why I enjoy these stories, and why I am loving this challenge so much. The Terror has an extra dimension to the fear, a mythic fear, but to say anymore would be to give it away. Any contact with the mythic changes us, that's what Joseph Campbell said in A Hero With a Thousand Faces, and The Terror is one well-crafted example of contact with the supernatural.
So, that is 3 books out of 4 that I have completely enjoyed so far. This is better than the last 10 years of trying to find a decent ghost story to read!!
I think The Terror is well worth reading. I love it for so much more than the horror. Above all, it is the characters and their awful starvation that I remember most, and the ice and snow surrounding them. And amongst that, the unknowable, terrorizing them, waiting.
I love really good horror stories!!!