Reading “The Terror”

A few weeks ago (What I’m Reading Now, Sept. 5), I mentioned that I had started to read The Terror by Dan Simmons, a novel about the doomed Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. Right from the start I thought it was an intense, possibly disturbing book. Not being in a state of mind at the time in which one enjoys being disturbed, I laid The Terror aside while I raced through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Then I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga. Dark and wintry, it turned out to be a perfect bridge from Harry back to The Terror.

Simmons did an incredible amount of research, about the Franklin expedition, about life in the British Navy in the 19th century, about the social conditions of the time. This imparts a gravity and richness to the book. It’s a serious historical novel, but it’s also horror, on a couple of different levels.

To the history, Simmons grafts a supernatural being, a monster that terrorizes the men of the expedition as they endure winter on their icebound ships. In the best tradition of horror writing, the nature of this being remains mysterious. But another, very real horror is the situation in which these men find themselves. Through a series of misfortunes and bad decisions (recognizable long after the fact), they are trapped in solid  ice thousands of miles from home, with fuel and food supplies steadily diminishing and few options to escape their fate of slow starvation. The perpetual night of the Arctic winter is upon them and the temperature sometimes falls to -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually they are forced to abandon the ships and make a desperate final effort to save themselves. It’s hard reading, but I can’t stop.

I find myself haunted by this novel. It casts a shadow on me as I go about my daily business. One of the pleasures of reading is to experience vicariously the troubles of the characters while comfortably ensconced at home with central heating and a fridge full of food. That’s hard to do with this book. Even though it’s earliest fall here in this most temperate region, the savage cold and dwindling food are a little too real, never mind the monster. I have to close the book and disengage from it at intervals. But I’m always compelled to return.

This isn’t the only horror novel with a polar setting. Being a sometime fan of H. P. Lovecraft, I think immediately of “At the Mountains of Madness,” a tale of shocking discoveries by a team of scientists in the Antarctic. Then there’s Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, also set in the Antarctic (and which I must read again, since my memory of it is extremely hazy).  Then there’s the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, which spawned The Thing, a movie about a monster terrorizing a polar research station.

Accounts of doomed polar expeditions, fictional or otherwise, exercise a strange fascination. The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Robert Falcon Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole, in which Scott and several others perished, has the same repellent allure as Simmons’s novel. Roald Amundsen’s account of his successful race to that same Pole was merely interesting, especially because it illustrated so many things that Scott did wrong — like using ponies for transport. Ponies in the Antarctic! Amundsen, on the other hand, had learned a lot from the native peoples of Arctic regions. No ponies there; they used dog teams. Amundsen’s crew beavered away in their snow-cave workshops, testing and rebuilding their equipment, getting everything perfect. No wonder he succeeded. But all the while I was reading his book, I was thinking of Scott. If only, if only…