Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Terror

For my second "Make Me Read!" poll, I offered a choice between two horror titles: The Terror by Dan Simmons, and It by Stephen King. I was sure that It would prevail, as it's been around for a couple of decades now and my sense of things is that the book is generally considered to be one of King's best, where The Terror is only a year old and thus doesn't have the reputation behind it that It does. Right? So, of course, The Terror was voted by my readers, by a fairly large margin out of the dozen votes cast (or thereabouts). The finally tally was something like 9-3 in favor of The Terror.

Of course, this whole reading-by-poll thing works out pretty well for me regardless, as I'm the one picking the two choices each time, so I'm guaranteeing that I'm still reading something that I actually want to read. Basically, the exercise serves to help me get through some of the indecision I often suffer when it comes time to choose a new book to read. That indecision can be even greater when I'm choosing what to read after finishing a book that I actually love a great deal, which is the case with all of this Guy Gavriel Kay re-reading that I'm doing along the way. So, as always, thanks to my readers!

And now, onto discussing The Terror.

I was about halfway through the book at one point when I was reading it whilst enjoying my lunch break at work, and a co-worker asked me what I was reading. "It's called The Terror," I replied. "It's about a group of sailors who, in the 1800s, are on one of those expeditions into the Arctic Ocean to seek out the Northwest Passage. Their ship is frozen in and they are marooned up there, on the cold ice, not entirely knowing where they are. Supplies are short, winter is coming, there are the conflicts of personality that you would expect, and to make matters worse, there seems to be a creature of the supernatural variety stalking the crew and killing them horribly. The book is told from a number of viewpoints, and some of those viewpoints are told months or years before others, so the book hops around in time a bit."

My co-worker considered this, and then she said: "So it's like a steampunk-Arctic version of LOST, then?"

"Huh," I said. "I guess it is. Strange, because I don't like LOST."

In the 1840s, two ships set out from England – the Erebus and the Terror -- on an expedition to find the ever-elusive Northwest Passage, which expedition leader Sir John Franklin is convinced can still be found, somewhere amidst the thousands of islands of Arctic North America. Of course, everything that can go wrong eventually does, and the story quickly becomes one of those "man against nature" stories, where nature wins without so much as breaking a sweat. The two ships are frozen in ice in a place where the crews aren't even entirely sure where they are, and that's when "the thing" starts coming at them – an immense monster who seems to appear out of nowhere and kills men sometimes without a sound, and other times with a great deal of sound, mainly shrieking followed by the crunching of crushing bone. Add to the mix the arrival of a mysterious Eskimo woman whose tongue has been removed at the root, dwindling rations, a crew that is partly mutinous, and you have the makings of a pretty amazing tale.

What was even more interesting to me was something I didn't learn until I was nearly three-quarters of the way through the book: The Terror is based in fact. There really was en expedition on the dates indicated in the book, where two ships named Erebus and Terror were lost in the wilds of the Arctic. It seems that Simmons has taken the historical event and created his own narrative around it, which is an interesting approach. Sufficiently little is known of the fates of the sailors of the ships – no one survived, and scrappy evidence left behind is all that allows us to know what probably happened to the crew – that Simmons is able to work with a fairly broad brush here, and work he does, creating one of the most suspenseful stories I have read in a long time. The book is, by turns, harrowing, claustrophobic, irritating (Sir John is one of those characters you just want to be able to reach into the book and throttle), and, toward the end, downright mesmerizing.

I can't recommend The Terror highly enough.

1 comment:

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

I just got back from the local library book sale. I was surprised by how many "professional" used book buyers were there. Scanning device in hand they furrowed through the inventory picking out the ones that had a high current value on Amazon. I also found quite a few children s books that were in good condition and still quite poplar (the early Arthur reader for example).

Here's a thought. Before the library goes and begs for more tax money, why don't they try to use the books longer and sell the high value books themselves.

I love the library but unless they get more cost conscious they are doomed. Ohio is already looking at cutting state funding by 50%.

This is the problem with govt run entities, they don't understand cost and savings based accounting. Its like they only can understand use it or lose it budgets systems.