Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dan Simmons, "The Terror".

c. David Grim (taken 8/6/10)

I make it a point to avoid most mainstream culture because, in my experience, it hews too closely to expectations that I find cliché and uninspiring. It just so happens that the average US citizen yearns for the comfort of formula. If (s)he can't place what (s)he is consuming into a previously defined category, (s)he is ill at ease. While I find that lamentable, I've now lived long enough not to let my desires for something different cloud my judgment about what is popular.

So when I see a book that is advertised as a "National Bestseller", I tend to discount it out of hand. I'm sure that means that I miss some of the quality exceptions, but there is only so much time within one single life, and there is so much to choose from that it would be silly not to establish some parameters. Still, once in while the buzz seems to suggest that something has made it through to the masses that is actually a quality read. I got that feeling reading reviews for Dan Simmon's "The Terror".

"The Terror" is a historical fiction account of a doomed arctic expedition in the mid 19th century. Several missteps cause two great wooden steamships to be trapped in the ice for a period of years. The tale of how the crew finds itself in increasing discomfort and danger is described in picturesque detail, and builds to a genuinely menacing denouncement. Despite being written entirely in the 3rd person, different chapters focus on the thoughts and perspectives of various crew members... notably a few of the expedition's lead officers and a surgeon. This technique keeps things moving and heightens the tension and mystique about the events in the story.

The sailors in Simmons' retelling of the stranding of the Franklin Expedition are put through the wringer, and their trials and tribulations are described in sometimes excruciating detail. Have you ever wondered what happens to the human body when afflicted with scurvy? To hear Simmons tell it, it's pretty damned disgusting. Starvation, mutiny, cold, and boredom all present challenges that are fairly fascinating. But remember the title of the book (SPOILER ALERT) - there is a monster stalking the crew upon the frozen wastelands, along with Eskimos that have some sort of weird relationship to "the thing" on the ice.

No doubt the true account of the Franklin Expedition would have been absorbing enough. The addition of a supernatural presence truly put this reader on edge. At least at first, until the author revealed more about the monster. I prefer my horror to lurk on the edge of consciousness, and Simmons achieves this for hundreds of pages. But by page 700 or so, I'm about done with the whole Eskimo folktale angle. Unfortunately that's what it all comes down to. The story of one officer "going native" ends up preoccupying Simmons at the story's conclusion. I could have done without that particular trajectory.

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