Extreme Winter Reading: The Terror by Dan Simmons

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Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

So many people hate winter.  Me, too. However, strangely, I really enjoy extreme winter reading about ice adventures, especially historical fiction of failed 19th-century polar expeditions like  The Terror by Dan Simmons.



Entertainment Weekly calls The Terror, “brutal, relentless, yet oddly uplifting” and Washington Post Book World calls it, “a difficult walk on fractured ice….this mix of historical realism, Gothic horror and ancient mythology…”. I call it, Gather all the duvets! 

The Terror made Book Riot‘s top five must-read creepy historical novels.

The Terror ANd The Truth

For the last two terrifically bleak weeks, from the warm, overstuffed comfort of my fireside armchair, I have been imagining being sealed into an ice tomb with the very failed 1845 Franklin Expedition. They were in search of the Northwest Passage.

All the men and the two ships, Terror and Erebus, were lost.

Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Captain John Franklin, launched “the longest, broadest and most expensive search for two lost ships in maritime history,” trying to locate her husband. Her grief actually forwarded arctic science. 

That’s the truth.

Book cover for H. P. Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of MadnessThe men on board the HMS Terror were “stranded in a nightmarish landscape of encroaching ice and darkness” — that’s also the truth.

But here’s the icy-hand-on-your-back fiction. In Simmons telling of  the Franklin Expedition, the men were  also ravaged by “an unseen predator stalking the ship, a monstrous terror clawing to get in.” Perhaps it is the Great White Bear. Perhaps it is the paranormal. At any rate, cue your Lovecraft. Cue your Cthulhu. Pull all the duvets right up tight to your chin.



It seems seemly to end with this quote from The Terror, as I curl back up like a hibernating bear into my reading chair: “All this natural misery,” Dr. Goodsir said suddenly. “Why do you men have to add to it? Why does our species always have to take our full measure of God-given misery and terror and mortality and then make it worse? Can you answer me that, Mr. Hickey?”

Because, Mr. Hickey, it makes for transfixing reading.