Happy Halloween! This year I’m running a double feature in celebration, showcasing a beer and a book that (hopefully) live up to the big day. Since it’s a bit early to start in on my beer, we’ll open things off with the book. When it came time to select a second spooky story for the month, my thoughts immediately turned to Dan Simmons, a name longtime readers and friends of the blog may recall seeing here on a few occasions. I had been meaning to read this for a while and figured I now had the perfect occasion to do so.
This story takes place in the years 1847-1848 and is a fictionalized account of the John Franklin Discovery Service Expedition, an ill-fated Arctic expedition launched from England in 1845 with the intention of mapping the Northwest Passage. It consisted of two ships, the HMS Erebus under the command of Sir John Franklin and the HMS Terror captained by Francis Crozier, each boasting heavily reinforced hulls and specially equipped steam engines to help force their way through icy seas. Despite these technological advantages, the ships proved no match for the Arctic ice and became hopelessly trapped in September 1846 somewhere around King William’s Island. In this tale, however, the doomed crews of the Terror and Erebus have more than just the harsh elements and starvation to worry about. Lurking out in the icy wasteland is monstrous creature stalking and attacking the men with ease. While the crews debate whether it is simply a particularly massive and cunning polar bear or the Devil itself, one thing is indisputably clear – if the elements don’t kill them the creature most certainly will.
I enjoyed this book a lot and found myself getting caught up in the story and lives of the crew members. Simmons did an excellent job immersing the reader into this world through vivid descriptions and a healthy dose of sailor talk. It was a bit daunting at first, but I got used to it rather quickly and it didn’t take long for it to sound natural. The cast of characters was equally well-written and really brought the story to life. Even knowing their fates, I was on the edge of my seat as the crews of the two crippled ships struggled against all odds to survive the seemingly endless winter. The two individuals given the most page time, Captain Francis Crozier of the Terror and Erebus surgeon Harry Goodsir, were both really interesting and had very engaging stories in their own rights. Crozier in particular was a fascinating character to follow and we spend a lot of time in his head contemplating issues like depression, alcoholism, and how his Irish heritage often made him an outsider in the Navy despite his elevated rank.
In light of this, the horror elements, while a good source of additional suspense, ultimately weren’t really needed. While I thought they offered a nice twist, I was always far more interested in the more worldly struggles of the crew than what was going on with the creature. Cut out the monster and the related supernatural elements and this would still be a gripping, harrowing story. Indeed, that seems almost possible since it often felt these scenes were inserted into the historical fiction at a later time. Besides, there was already plenty of blood and gore to be had in the normal course of ship’s duties, and that’s before the graphic accounts of scurvy recorded by Goodsir and the need for, um, “alternative” food sources comes into play.
One thing this story did inspire me to do is read up more on this topic and that era of exploration in general. I’m not sure it’s something I’ll want to do during what’s supposed to be a rough winter in these parts, but I am updating my reading wish list accordingly. Great book that I’m really happy I finally got around to reading.