A Dull Mishmash of Stories

Author: Dan Simmons

Two ships, stranded in the Arctic, locked in mountains of ice, hunted by an unknown foe. Sir John Franklin’s exploration, searching for the Northwest Passage, is a famous doomed voyager. The desultory black and white photos live on, as does the mystery of the men’s final days, dying one by one, attempting to walk across barren fields of ice.

It’s a true story thrumming with pathos and paranoia, and the perfect subject for a fictionalized account. In Dan Simmon’s re-imagining, the doomed men of the two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, are held captive not only by the caprices of Arctic weather, but by something mystical out on the ice, something that is hunting them. As time runs out, the dying sailors face everything from mutiny to the strange presence of a native woman, Lady Silence, who seems to know how to survive in this barren land and is somehow tied to the bizarre creature that stalks the cruel landscape.

The Terror has an interesting premise, leveraging a real historical tragedy. But the story is trying to do far too much and, weighing in at over 700 pages, it fails to tie in all the plot threads. First, we have the horror of real life. The ships, modern marvels at the beginning of the 19th century, are stuck in the ice. This alone is terrifying. John Franklin, the explorer and expedition leader, is a visionary who has a track record of failure. This ill-fated and poorly planned journey is no exception. Captain Francis Crozier is too into his booze and orders to listen to sense, and so the men are stranded, and emotions are running high. This alone would be a good story.

Then, there is the added terror of the food situation. Franklin went with the cheaper option, a new merchant whose canned goods have proven to be unsafe. They are rotting, filled with poisons, sickening, and killing the men. Most of the food is inedible. Scurvy, a truly horrifying disease, is beginning to manifest. The crew is hallucinating and hemorrhaging to death. This too would be a good story line.

But then, we have an added creature, an apparition described as polar bear like, half seen, predominantly vicious. It kills, but not, seemingly, for food. Somehow the native woman, who arrived with a man (husband, father?) who was subsequently killed, is tied into this mythical beast. We have random attacks from the monster, inexplicably dubbed “The Terror” even though that is also the name of the crew’s ship. Lady Silence creeps around menacingly, and everyone starts to whisper. There are rumors about her: a witch, some kind of shaman, some occult entity.

Image by Andy from Pixabay

Who knows . . . because now we’re back to the food situation. And then, we’re back in time, looking at long ago stuffy parties where Sir John failed to heed the advice of wiser explorers. But then . . . we’re back to talking about the ice. But hold it – it’s time to shift another hundred pages to talk about Captain Crozier’s failed past love affair and how the bottle is everything to him. We’re even going to throw in a pair of murderous crew members and make them an entire side-plot.

It’s far too much going on, and it doesn’t tie together. Is this a story of a stranded ship? A story of starvation? A story of the supernatural? A story of an Eskimo woman? A story of mutiny, of failed love affairs among crew members, of a captain with a drinking problem? Who knows. The plot lines intersect, each taking a huge number of pages while all the others are ignored. The creature disappears for hundreds of pages, only to reappear when we are least interested. It’s hard to keep track of what is relevant and what is simply filler information. What’s the true storyline here? No one knows. The Arctic bleeds into a tiring background, the characters shuffle and mumble, very little happens very slowly, hundreds of pages tediously pass.

Meanwhile, no one here is sympathetic. The characters morph, one into the other, with occasional, inexplicably long backstories that are inconsequential. So what that Crozier had a bad love affair once? Why is this the only aspect of his personality that ever comes forward? Some characters get long backstories, others get nothing. None of the stories really matter, and none of the people are likable or empathetic. They are all future monster chow anyway.

The very last portion of the story ends with “The Terror” and finally sort of tells us what this entity is . . . this creature that is unimaginatively depicted as a really really big polar bear with a squarer shaped head. The ending seems like it is attached to an entirely different book, a different story, and once again adds something else left field into this strange mixture. Alone, one of the ideas might have been good, but combined together this is a troubled mishmash of half formed plots, all of which become tedious, interspersed with occasional gore and confusion, and then once again labored with hundreds of pages of inconsequential detail and very little actual movement. I was relieved when the story was finished and happy to dispatch this book from my collection into my Little Free Library. Not recommended.

Extra Reading: “Frozen in Time” Arctic Shipwreck of HMS Terror – See how it Looks Today (thevintagenews.com)

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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