Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Terror

The title does admirable double duty, bearing the name of one of Franklin's lost ships and alerting readers they are venturing into the world of horror. At 769 pages it's a typical Simmons offering -- a big smooth page-turner.

The disappearance of Franklin and his 1845 expedition is one of the most enduring mysteries of the North. The two ships have never been found, and the only written communication from the expedition is a single sheet of paper that does little to shed light on what went wrong. In other words, the expedition is a perfect candidate for a fictional re-working. Mordecai Richler briefly exploited it in Solomon Gurski Was Here, but but only in passing. The Terror is the first, I believe, to focus exclusively on the expedition itself.

The book is extensively researched and accounts for all the known facts of the expedition. The endpapers consist of maps showing its route and final movements, and each of the 67 chapters begins with a date and is precisely located by longitude and latitude. Simmons recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of shipboard life, and does a fine job of portraying many of the crew members, especially Captain Francis Crozier -- who, according to Inuit oral history, may have survived many years after the ships were lost.

Almost every character in the book is an actual historical person. Two major exceptions are an Inuk named Lady Silence, and a supernatural creature from Inuit legend, a sort of giant polar bear that dispatches most of the crew members (including Franklin himself) by ripping them apart.

Ken McGoogan (a Franklin scholar and author of Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin's Revenge) noted in the Globe and Mail that the monster could be seen as allegorical -- that is, as an embodiment of all the things that contributed to the expedition's demise, from scurvy to cultural hubris. Since everyone died, the monster must be omnipotent and invincible.

The book has garnered nothing but laudatory reviews since it appeared. Certainly, introducing a monster to a story that is already monstrous is a wonderful conceit. Yet I found myself wishing Simmons had tapped another literary source and recruited a different monster. Frankenstein, if you remember, ends in the Arctic with the monster leaping from a ship and fleeing over the ice -- a monster with vulnerabilities, a monster who (I think) offers far better allegorical possibilities. Even the dates match, the first “popular” edition of Frankenstein coming out in 1831, only 14 years before Franklin set sail. The monster that Simmons created is so over the top (especially the tongue-ripping ceremony) that I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief.

There are other aspects of the novel that are similarly too extreme. Temperatures that plunge to minus 100 degrees, 80-foot pressure ridges, lightning storms as fierce as artillery barrages, hailstones as big as cannonballs, a surreal costume party out on the ice.

And one final gripe. When Franklin sees Lady Silence, his face turns white. He thinks she is Greenstockings, the beautiful Dene woman whom he encountered on his first expedition, and whom two of his officers were prepared to fight a duel over. I was delighted by this development, but (unless I missed it, which is certainly possible), Simmons does not provide an explanation, leaving us to assume that Franklin was mistaken.

The endpapers provide a useful map of the area.