People. This is a seriously great book. This is probably the best book I've read all year. I was completely blown away. I could write A Lot about this book, it's very long and so rich, but this is my attempt at a summary and my impressions.
The dates are fuzzy because I don't have the book in front of me, but: Sometime in the mid 1840s, Sir John Franklin sets out with a group of 130-some men, two ships (The Erebus and The Terror), and a goal: to find the North-West Passage in the Arctic. True story. Also true: none of the men were ever heard from again. This is the story of what could have happened.
We enter the story as The Erebus and The Terror have been stuck in the ice for two years. The cold and damp are unrelenting, but the men remain steadfast in their belief in their captain, John Franklin, and in their mission. They are certain that the ice will thaw and their ships will sail again, either to complete their assignment, or back home.
There's only one problem: there is a Thing out there in the ice fields. It comes without warning, grabbing men on watch, snatching messengers between the ships... untrackable, untraceable, seemingly pure evil, killing for the joy of it. At one point, the men come up to the deck of the frozen ship only to find two of their men returned to them from the Thing; except it's two men in one: the top half of one man, the bottom half of the other, arranged sitting on the deck as if one man. Yuck. Chilling. What is this thing? And who is Lady Silence, the mute Esquimaux (I love that spelling) girl who appeared at the same time as the Thing?
The months wear on. The Thing kills more and more men, picking them off. It kills Captain John Franklin gruesomely. Captain Crozier, captain of The Terror, takes over the expedition. They wait and wait for the thaw. The Thing kills even more men. The dark and cold never end. Temperatures are in the -80s (yes, that's negative 80). Blizzards rage. Rations are running low. Soon, they discover that many of their canned goods are spoiled, cutting their rations almost in half. Some of the men become surly and mutinous. Spirits dip even lower.
At the turn of the year, they decide to have a masquerade, a Carnivale, to raise their morale. One of the men suggests setting up a maze of colored rooms on the ice, a la The Masque of the Red Death. I found this scene particularly chilling, having just re-read that story. The maze of colored rooms, ending in the macabre black room... and what happens at the stroke of midnight. Horrifying. I found this entire section very disturbing.
Scurvy begins to set in. Some men succumb to madness and comas. Some have amputated limbs from frostbite (or the Thing). Conditions worsen (how is it possible that it could get worse?).
(and then, it gets worse) Eventually, it becomes clear that The Erebus will not sail again as it has become very damaged by the pressures of the ice, and then, that The Terror will not be completing the expedition either, as the thaw never comes. The men abandon ship and set out over the ice to try to find a break in the ice to find rescue, hauling thousands of pounds of boats and supplies over neverending ice swells and ridges, through sea ice which grabs at their sledge runners. This is where my heart just starts to break. These men have not been warm in years. They are weak, sick, and hauling their mates who are too ill to haul the sledges. Each time they come to an ice swell, they must unpack the sledges, haul the heavy sledges up 80 feet swells, then come back and get the supplies and haul them over, then repack the sledge. In dark, and cold, and blizzards. Their clothes are constantly damp and frozen as the wool never dries. It just sounds horrible.
Finally they make camp to wait for the thaw that never comes. The Thing never leaves them alone completely, circling the camp, sometimes coming closer, sometimes killing men, sometimes leaving them alone for weeks, but never completely gone. More men succumb to survey. I cannot emphasize this enough: they are never warm, never dry, and rations are running lower than ever. Their canned goods are spoiled; men start to die from food poisoning (I'm guessing it's botulism).
They leave this camp (Camp Terror) and continue to haul out to sea, in hopes that they might be able to find a passing whaling ship or rescue expedition, sent to find the men who have been missing for over three years. They haul their fallen comrades and their heavy gear, sometimes only traveling one mile a day. It takes hours to go yards. The Thing on the ice becomes even more crafty and horrifying. Oh God, can it get any worse?
It does. I can't believe there is anyone alive at this point. The expedition starts to break up. Mutiny seems certain. Captain Crozier decides to release the men from their service, so they can choose how best they want to try to save themselves. And then, when you don't think it can get ANY worse, it does. It gets worse. It's heartbreaking, and awful, and I can't believe how devastating this book it at this point. How will it all end?
And then, something miraculous happens. I won't give it away, but the last few chapters of the book are transforming. I was kind of astonished at the ending, and I usually don't like endings where the story takes a sharp turn, but I really appreciated this ending and found it beautiful and haunting, especially what finally happened to The Terror (which was horrifying in itself, and quite a mystery).
So, that's my summary of the book. I was totally surprised how much I loved it. I also found it horrifying. What was so horrifying? It was not the sort of horror that makes me afraid to go down the dark hall in my apartment, jumping to flick on the light at the slightest sound. It was the kind of horror that grew as a cold lump in my heart, as I imagined what it was like to be stranded on the ice for years, never ever ever being warm or dry, not knowing if you will ever get home again, and fighting a supernatural foe who seems hellbent on destroying you. You cannot fight it. You can only run, or hide. Your mates turn against you. You never have enough to eat. You are sick. You are freezing. You must haul thousands of pounds through the ice, in blizzards, as your clothes freeze to your skin, as your toes fall off from damp and frostbite. You have no choice -- you can't just go home. You can't even curl up in your warm bed. There are no warm beds. The misery is unending. I found all of this so much more horrifying than any vampire story I've read this past year. I found the Thing on the ice, with its intelligence and malice, scarier than any ghost story I read in vain, looking for a thrill.
I was completely entranced by this book.
After reading The Terror each night, I would curl up in my big soft warm bed, my belly full of my warm dinner, my limbs warm and dry, and I would say prayers of thankfulness. I have been above the Arctic Circle. I would not want to be stranded up there for years. This book made my say my prayers every night. It was that good.
I imagine the misery of these men. Dan Simmons is an amazing writer who made this agony come alive. The beauty of the harsh Arctic, of the aurora borealis, the fight for survival, all written in compelling prose. This is not a girly book. This is not a mere horror novel. This is a tour de force tale of fighting for survival, of arctic expeditions, of Eskimo shamanism and unimaginable terrors of all sorts. And, finally, of finding out what can happen when everything you ever loved, or thought you loved, is gone, gone gone -- stripped away. When even YOU are gone. What can happen, when you have a chance to be alive again, in a way you never anticipated?
READ THIS BOOK. This was an amazing story. It was very long, clocking in at almost 800 pages, but I loved every single page. The writing was amazing, the characters heartbreaking and chilling and inspiring, the monster terrifying, the story unbelieveable. I was so impressed, and truly, completely blown away. I can't say enough about this book, and I can't truly express how much I enjoyed it. So I'll leave it at that. If you were considering reading The Terror, please do. Please read it. It's amazing.