Often I’ll read a book and think, Damn, I wish I could force my friends to read this. Does everyone feel this way? It’s not simply an innocent wish to have someone with whom to discuss the book. It’s also a braggart’s need to manifest my awesomeness to my friends. See how I have discovered this awesome thing! Read it and admire its, and consequently my, awesomeness!
The problem with my book club is that it doesn’t permit me to propose books that I’ve already read. We have agreed that the books we choose will be fresh to everyone in the group. This rule has proved frustrating. I wish I could force the other book club members to read Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, Richard Price’s Clockers, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure they’d all fall down on their knees and worship me. Instead I must suggest books whose awesomeness I’m fairly confident of before reading them.
This has never quite worked out. I love Philip Roth, but his The Plot Against America was probably not the best way to introduce my fellow book clubbers to his canon. Much of the fun (if that’s the right word) of that novel was encountering the themes and tableaux of Roth’s Newark boyhood, familiar from forty-odd years of thinly-disguised Rothobiographies, juxtaposed against an unfamiliar alternate-history backdrop.
Having already read Lethem’s back catalogue, I tried starting my friends out on his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. It was enjoyable, but too flimsy to justify my enthusiastic pre-endorsement. Nor was The Third Man the ideal book to kindle a love of Graham Greene in my fellow readers. (I should have started with Brighton Rock.)
So it was probably unrealistic of me to have such high hopes for The Terror, by Dan Simmons, an author I’d never read before. But the reviews were great and the premise was unbeatable. What really happened to the crew of John Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror on their 1847 expedition to find the Northwest Passage? Did they really die on the ice from starvation and scurvy? Or were they…stalked and devoured by a demon from the snowy wastes?
All the elements are present for a great horror story. Priggish officers. Salty sea dogs. Howling winds. A mysterious Eskimo with her tongue torn out. Cannibalism. A little buggery. Why doesn’t it work?
The problem is that Simmons isn’t content to write a taut little period thriller. The Terror is a sweeping historical epic that takes in the entire history of polar exploration, British mores in the mid-19th century, and Eskimo mythology, with a side trip to colonial Tasmania and cameo appearances by prominent contemporaries:
“Charles Babbage?” said Peglar. “The fellow who tinkers up so many odd things including some sort of computing engine?”
“The same,” said Bridgens. “Charles tells me that all these years Mr. Darwin has been working on a quite interesting volume discussing the mechanisms of organic evolution. Apparently it draws in information from comparative anatomy, embryology, and paleontology…”
And on in that manner. The novel sprawls to nearly 800 pages. Halfway through, when the surviving expedition commander, Captain Crozier, makes a mental tally of his men upon abandoning their frozen-in ships for a camp on a nearby island, Simmons takes us through a full roll call:
Of his primary officers, Crozier had lost his first mate, Fred Hornby, to the beast during the Carnivale debacle, Second Master Giles MacBean to the thing during a sledge trip the previous September, and both his surgeons, Peddie and McDonald …
Of Terror’s twenty-one petty officers – mates, quartermasters, fo’c’sle, hold, maintop, and foretop captains, coxswains, stewards, caulkers, and stokers – Crozier had lost only one man …
Terror had lost two of its rated sailors …
On down the list, recounting the names and ranks of all the crewmen whose deaths Simmons has already described as they occurred in the narrative. This continues for five full pages (pp 427-432).
A few months later, with the crew encamped on the southern shore of the island, having failed to escape across the ice to the mainland, Simmons has Crozier plod through the roll again:
Of the thirteen original officers on HMS Erebus, nine were dead: Sir John, Commander Fitzjames, Lt. Graham Gore, Lt. H.T.D. Le Vesconte, Lt. Fairholme, First Mate Sergeant, Second Master Collins, Ice Master Reid, and Chief Surgeon Stanley. The surviving officers consisted of …
This time the list drags on for a mere three pages (pp 613-615).
One has to admire Simmons’ attention to detail. Although it’s been awhile since I’ve read a non-fictional account of the Franklin expedition – Berton’s The Arctic Grail is the one I’m familiar with from Simmons’ list of acknowledgements – I’m quite confident that in his story he has accounted for the final disposition of every skeleton, brass button, and rusty tin can that has ever been discovered in the vicinity of King William Island. There’s no doubt that the author did his research. I just wish he’d done the research and then left a lot more of it out of the damn book.
When it’s not testing your patience, The Terror can be pretty fun. I sped through the last 400 pages or so in a single Saturday afternoon reading session. Still, I find myself looking forward to the movie adaptation, which should chuck out a lot of the superfluous backstory and concentrate on the good stuff. Cold so intense that to touch a brass telescope barehanded is to lose all the skin on your hand. A fight to the death in the rigging of an icebound ship. A frequently naked Eskimo girl. A lottery to decide who eats and who gets eaten. A hundred scurvy sailors manhauling all their food and supplies on wooden sledges across a windswept desolation of frozen gravel, with something following in the fog behind…
At one point in the tale, Captain Crozier has a prophetic dream in which he sees the future of the doomed expedition and its aftermath. (This is one of those passages that tests the patience.) The dream sequence includes the following familiar scene:
He sees a boy with black hair and greenish skin curled up in a fetal position against a brick-tile wall the colour of urine. Crozier knows that the boy is an epileptic in an asylum, in some bedlam somewhere. The boy shows no movement except for his dark eyes, which constantly flicker back and forth like a reptile’s. That shape am I.
As soon as he thinks this, Crozier knows that this is not his fear. It is some other man’s nightmare.
Having recently seen it quoted in an essay by Graham Greene, I recognised this as a vision suffered by William James, described in his Aspects of Religious Experience. But I was perplexed by its inclusion here. The asylum nightmare isn’t really contemporary with the Franklin expedition – the vision occurred about twenty years later – and there seems to be no reason for Simmons to drag William James into his mess of a novel along with Babbage and Darwin and the rest.
My best guess is that Simmons was thinking of William James’ bear:
In 1884, James published a seminal paper titled What is An Emotion in the philosophy journal Mind (there were no psychology journals around then). In this paper, he reasoned that human emotion followed a sequence of events beginning with an arousing stimulus … which then triggered the corresponding emotion. In other words, do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we are running from the bear? While the commonplace assumption is that the bear is the source of our fear, James argued that this commonsense interpretation is wrong. It was James’ contention that bodily changes result from the perception of the “exciting fact” which in term leads to the psychological sensation called emotion.
In writing a novel concerned with polar bear attacks, among other terrors, I suspect Simmons was eager to work in William James and his terrifying bear any way that he could. The bear wouldn’t fit – but with a little rending and stretching of the story, James’ famous green-skinned asylum child could be jammed in.
Find yourself a more ruthless editor, Dan Simmons.