Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Only Terror Was Knowing I Had to Finish It

The Terror

by Dan Simmons

Published by Little, Brown and Company

1 Out of 5 Stars

September 7, 2010: I don't want to talk about it right now. It's too soon and the pain is still too fresh. I shall review on another day.

September 17, 2010: It's been well over a week since my encounter with The Terror and the thought of writing a review still exhausts me, but here it goes.

I have read many glowing reviews of The Terror. That is, in fact, why I bought it. I mean, check out this kick ass plot:

Two British ships, the Terror and the Erebus, are frozen in the polar sea for years, waiting in vain for a summer thaw. This is, of course, based upon the doomed Franklin expedition, so we have some serious history going on here. Now, add to that a dash of the supernatural--something is out there on the ice. It terrorizes the men, seeming to materialize from nowhere. It's three times the size of a polar bear and has the vicious, bloodthirsty nature of a predator, as well as the keen intelligence of a man. It's like a giant cat toying with the two ships as if they were terrified mice in a corner. There's nowhere to go, guns don't faze the the thing the men dub "The Terror", and, now, the food supply is running out.

That's some frightening shit. It's the arctic. That alone is frightening. It can drive a man insane. It's the nothingness. The whiteness. The endless-ness. Howard Moon and Vince Noir knew not to take the tundra lightly.

And that's part of what ruined the book in the beginning. All I could think as I read the first few chapters was "ice floe, nowhere to go." I think that might have taken away from the tone a bit.

But here are some other more text-based reasons for the seething black pit of hatred that I have for this book:

a) History or supernatural, Simmons needs to pick a side because the two storylines always seemed to run parallel to one another and never quite came together. It was like, "Okay, for 100 pages, I'm going to have the men fearing for their lives as this thing attacks them. I'm going to build tension and suspense and have my readers empathetically shitting down both legs! And then I'm going to flashback for 50 pages to boring nautical talk amongst stuffy British types before the expedition and then spend 150 pages talking about Welsh Wigs and Goldner food tins and building sledges and maybe I'll even talk about buggering, but no mention whatsoever of the monster for another 50 pages!" Simmons was at his best when describing the encounters between the men and the thing on the ice, but these moments were so few and far between that I just got to the point where I didn't care anymore.

b) Too much historical minutiae. The book should have been 300 pages shorter. There were entire sections that didn't add anything to the narrative. I like my history like I like my men: short and concise.

c) Scurvy is some wicked bad shite. A slow death by scurvy is undoubtedly one of the worst ways to die. But do you know what's worse? A slow death by reading endless accounts of the symptoms of scurvy.

d) There are no likeable characters. In fact, there is little to differentiate one man from another. If you left out the dialogue tags, it would have sounded like one man having a conversation with himself. The only character I like is Pangle, who, alas, appears in just a chapter or two of this 766 page behemoth.

e) I was really pissed when I finally found out what the thing was. The main reason? THAT'S what I wanted to read more about. And it took roughly 700 pages to get to a point where I was actually interested and intrigued and it cut me off.

There were some bright spots. When Simmons wrote about the thing attacking the men, leaving bait for them and taunting them, he evoked moments that were truly terrifying and suspenseful. However, there just weren't enough of them. Sure, the attempts to survive against cold, hunger, and disease should have been compelling stuff, but they made for anemic reading when pitted against a terrifying adversary without name or shape. Also, the chapter in which the men throw a carnivale and erect tents that mirror the rooms in Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death is admittedly brilliant.

When it comes right down to it, though, The Mighty Boosh did a far superior job of capturing the terror of the arctic. When Howard admonishes Vince that "The arctic is no respecter of fashion," I still get chills. The same cannot be said of my reaction to The Terror


  1. That was a very long, very slowly paced book. I found it fascinating, but not necessarily entertaining. Took me almost 2 years of reading a few chapters here and there to persevere to the end,

    1. I may have liked it more if it weren't for the fact that it was the selection for a monthly book club. I had to read it at a breakneck pace to get it done--and it's definitely not a book that lends itself well to that.