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The Terror? Hailing the hell-bent original

My review of the original novel turned up in the Globe and Mail a decade ago. In response to popular demand, voila, here it is again . . . 

The Terror: A Novel, by Dan Simmons
Reviewed by Ken McGoogan

The most impressive achievement of this brilliant historical novel is that the author manages to account plausibly for all the known facts. In recreating the harrowing true story of the final expedition of Sir John Franklin, who disappeared into the Arctic with two ships and 128 men in 1845, Dan Simmons offers imaginative solutions to the thorniest mysteries.
After spending a first winter at Beechey Island, why did Franklin leave no note saying where he was sailing? Why did sailors, and especially officers, begin dying in such numbers?  When, in 1847, the men abandoned the two ice-locked ships, the Erebus and the Terror, why did they drag sledges towards the continental mainland and not Fury Beach, where food supplies lay waiting?
The questions get tougher: Why did local Inuit not help the starving, scurvy-stricken white men? How could sailors of the Royal Navy resort to eating the dead bodies of their comrades? How did one final survivor end up sitting in a whaleboat heading back the way it had come. Simmons incorporates oral testimony that some final survivors managed to get back aboard the Terror, and dramatically explains why contemporary searchers have failed to discover any traces of either ship.
Canadian literature is haunted by these questions. Besides such classics as The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton and Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, the lost Franklin expedition figures in works by authors as diverse as Margaret Atwood (Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature) and the late Mordecai Richler (Solomon Gursky Was Here). The surprise is that Simmons, a prolific, Colorado-based American who has won several awards for his suspense, horror and science fiction novels, should demonstrate such mastery of this northern file.
And Simmons is more than plausible. He is also dramatic and vivid – at times, horrifically so. He delivers arresting evocations of the cold and the dark and a bloody flogging; and I do not believe I have ever encountered more chilling descriptions of shipboard amputations or of the effects of scurvy, lead-poisoning and botulism. Nor does Simmons neglect the prosaic but enhancing detail. “Each time the survivors spent more than two days at a camp,” he writes, “the bosuns dragged a stick through the gravel and snow in some relatively open, flat spot to create the rough outline of the Erebus’s and Terror’s top and lower deck. This allowed the men to know where to stand during master and gave them a sense of familiarity.”
Not surprisingly, given his experience as a novelist, Simmons opens the narrative in October 1847, when it is well-advanced, and flashes back as necessary. He alternates among several point-of view characters, but most often he draws on Captain Francis Crozier, who in real life was Sir John Franklin’s second-in-command. This enables him seamlessly to contextualize the expedition, as the veteran Crozier can “remember” sailing with Sir Edward Parry and Sir James Clark Ross, and also visiting Franklin when he was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land.
Simmons gives one character a diary, and he allows the Irish Crozier to have inherited the gift of second sight, so that on occasion, for example, he can “see” what Lady Franklin is doing back home in London. So far, so safe.  But the author also employs one risky narrative strategy: he adds a mystical or supernatural dimension to the novel by introducing a marauding monster -- a cannibalistic Arctic windigo.
In so doing, he transgresses the conventions of the prevailing psychological realism. As a result, he will draw fire from both literary and historical purists, who will use the white beast as an excuse to dismiss the novel. Aesthetically, however, Simmons makes the device work. 
 First, he indicates that the beast should be read allegorically. He does this by allowing Crozier to realize that “the Devil trying to kill them up here in the Devil’s Kingdom was not just the white-furred thing killing and eating them one by one, but everything here – the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the canny lack of seals and whales and birds . . . the summers that did not come, the leads that did not open – everything. The monster on the ice was just another manifestation of a Devil that wanted them dead.”
Secondly, Simmons identifies this white beast, also called “The Terror,” as emerging out of Inuit mythology. And in this way, he integrates the Inuit dimension, without which the novel would remain incomplete. Finally, by introducing this inexplicable beast, Simmons implicitly recognizes and asserts that some aspects of what happened on that long-ago expedition must remain forever unknown.
No book is without flaws. Simmons treats explorer Elisha Kent Kane far too harshly, and he serves up one fanciful sex scene that, alas, just never could have happened. Nor did Lady Franklin, as she is properly called, see her husband off at the London docks; and Leopold McClintock did not read the final note at the cairn on King William Island, but only when he arrived back at his ship.
But this is nitpicking. While remaining true to the historical record in every important particular, Simmons has given us a host of colorful, believable characters caught up in a driving, hell-bent narrative.  The Terror is a tour de force. The author’s nationality notwithstanding, this novel is far more deserving of specifically Canadian attention than the majority of the books that, come autumn, we will see short-listed for this country’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Ken McGoogan has written about the lost Franklin expedition in Lady Franklin’s Revenge, which recently earned him the Pierre Berton Award for History and the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography; and in Fatal Passage, which is currently being turned into a two-hour TV docudrama.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.