Dan Simmons’s THE TERROR is a sprawling, ambitious, well-researched, immersive, supernatural horror epic set in the Arctic.
In the 1840s, two British exploring ships probe the Arctic seas, searching for the Northwest Passage that promised a shorter trade route to China and India. After both ships wind up icebound in the harsh winter, the expected summer thaw does not occur. And after a native is accidentally killed on the ice, a deadly, malevolent entity in the form of a giant polar bear begins picking off the terrified crews. The expeditionary force’s captain leads his men on foot in a desperate flight across the ice.
What a brutal book. The entity is very cool, but in the end, fairly unnecessary to the real horror, which was starvation, scurvy, disease, the back-breaking labor of man-hauling heavy sledges across pack ice, and the terrible, terrible cold. In some parts, the constant difficulties of the hostile environment make for suffocating reading. Otherwise, I liked the characters and what drove them, the historical touches, the desperate fight to survive. While THE TERROR is a supernatural horror story, it’s really a survival horror story in its cold heart, a story about good and flawed men fighting to survive to the last sad gasp.
I read the book after watching the TV adaptation, and enjoyed both, though there are some significant differences. The show played the survival horror very well, particularly the idea of Englishmen struggling to do their duty until all notions of honor, country, and morality disintegrate in the face of disease, starvation, and lost hope. The book, meanwhile, did a far better job with the creature, including its explanation, and Captain Crozier’s fate. If you like the basic story, I’d recommend both.
My only criticism of the book is it’s fairly sprawling, and I found myself skimming in quite a few places. Overall, however, THE TERROR is quite a powerful tale both as historical fiction, supernatural horror, and survival horror.