Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Terror: A Novel

By Dan Simmons, master storyteller...

Anyone who has read Dan Simmons' classic Hyperion Cantos, or his more recent Ilium and Olympos will tell you this gifted author knows how to spin a yarn that is completely realized, utterly uncanny, and amazingly literary.  Of all Simmons' writing talents the one I enjoy the most is the way he draws deeply upon classic, modern, and popular literature, culture, and traditions to inform his story.  In the Hyperion Cantos he called upon Roman Catholicism, medieval history, and The Wizard of Oz to color his canvas.  In Olympos and Ilium a future earth is shaped by the Homeric epics and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In The Terror: A Novel, Simmons uses the history of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845 as his stalking horse.  The story of the Sir Franklin’s lost expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage is horrifying enough, but to the crushing ice, bitter cold, endless night, numbing hopelessness, privation, want, exposure, the stench of scurvy, gangrene, and suppuration that actually occurred, Simmons adds A Monster stalking the ice intent on their destruction.  Simmons summons Edgar Allan Poe to make scenes of shattered bone, torn off limbs, and freezing sprays of blood magically surreal.  To call it Master and Commander Meets The Thing would be glib, but such a description might get you into the ballpark visually.  This wickedly clever mash-up of historical fiction, arctic exploration during the age of sail, and horror chilled me instantly and left me so for all 766 pages.

The Terror is one of those novels you can't quit reading for fear the story will leave you behind. I knew the Franklin Expedition ended badly but loved being dragged into Simmons' even more hopeless version.  I’m glad I did not read it when it was first published in 2007.  Those were especially dark days in our house and this horror story would have made the gloom even worse.  Five years on I didn’t want this carefully crafted world to end, leaving me to find my own way back to a safe and slightly banal reality.

In The Terror, Simmons is a gory-minded storyteller with a heart made of grinding shards of ice.  Not for the squeamish, but I loved every minute of it.  The Terror is bloody, brilliant, and bloody brilliant.

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