I first noticed The Terror when I was in the bookstore. I have a weakness for ghost stories and books about the supernatural (M.R. James, Robert Aickman, writers of that sort, rather than the slasher genre), and I also have an odd fondness for the Arctic. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Dan Simmons (an author I was not familiar with at the time) had written a novel combining the two? Explaining the doomed Franklin expedition in terms of some horror stalking them over the ice? Oh, I was all but cackling and rubbing my hands together in public. (I try to avoid that, as much as I am tempted at times.) Then a dear friend gave me a spare copy of his, with a recommendation. That was all I needed, and I dove in.
I’m sorry to say I thought it was dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. I couldn’t finish it, so I’ll say that now; perhaps after the first hundred pages it improved. But the first paragraph raised my hackles:
Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts. Above him — above Terror — shimmering folds of light lunge but then quickly withdraw like the colourful arms of aggressive but ultimately uncertain spectres. Ectoplasmic fingers stretch toward the ship, open, prepare to grasp, and pull back.
Okay, it’s a little bit purple, but hey, I don’t mind that. I like Lovecraft, for goodness sake. I can take an overblown description. My problem, and I’ll admit that it set my teeth on edge from the outset, is that Simmons did all his research. He read the same sources I have read, including Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, which I just reviewed. In which case, he should know that his references to ghostly arms and ectoplasm are about fifty years too early. The very first seance and medium were to take place in England about fifty years later, and the woman who conducted them was the wife of another Arctic explorer. So why use that image? It’s a small detail, but everything was like that. Repetitive, overblown, inaccurate, and oh, my sainted aunt, so obvious. I knew within the first twenty pages (and again, I didn’t finish it, so pardon me if I made a bad inference) that with our eponymous terror we did not have to do with anything supernatural, but with a very natural force. How did I know? I read the by-God epigram before the first page, where Simmons gave the store away. That irritates me something awful.
In the end, it could have been a better book from the get-go. I wound up wishing Simmons hadn’t written it, because then someone else might have done it, and might have done it better. The Arctic seems full of fear to me; empty and yet full of mysterious death. Aickman could have done it, and I wish he had. But then, I always wish my favorite writers had done more. If it were up to me, I’d be a terrible slave-driver for authors. I never want to read the last thing they wrote, because I never want there to be a world where there are no new things to read by Aickman, or Colwin, or Thackeray, or Tolstoy, or Dunnett, or all those I love, forever and ever, amen. But the idea of new treasures by favorite authors is an entry for another day.