Used to be that reading a book wasn’t a noteworthy accomplishment, but these days me reading anything not on the internet is pretty amazing. Plus, I read a fiction book, which is exceedingly rare for me, plus plus it’s a 766 page fiction book, or novel if you’re some kind of fancy pants. The point is: good for me.
The novel is “The Terror” by Dan Simmons, historical fiction horror, I guess, imagining the fate of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, two old-timey ships that went looking for the northwest passage in 1845. In reality, the expedition did not go so well, and in this fictional version, it did not go so well even worse. Here’s some more bad news: I have no idea how to review a book, so I’m just going to say some things and hope I don’t sound like a complete moron.
In the novel, the two ships, carrying about 130 men, become stuck in the ice near Canada (this happened for real) for two years (also for real), and find themselves battling not just the extreme cold, frostbite, and a contaminated food and water supply (real), but also a mysterious and terrifying monster than begins stalking and killing them (this is the fiction bit). The book is broken into chapters told from the perspective of several of the crewmen, kind of A Game of Thrones style, a format that I think is pretty great. It lets events unfold without jumping around between multiple characters, but also lets you hear about these events later from another perspective. I dunno, I thought it worked well in A Game of Thrones, and it works well here, too.
Simmons seems to know his old-timey boat stuff; honestly, I’d have read a purely factual book about this expedition if he wrote it, because I like old-timey boat stuff. Like, I love submarine stuff in films if it’s done well, too. There’s a horror movie called Below, about a haunted submarine, and it’s not very good, but the submarine stuff is excellent. I watched it and I was like, “Please, forget the shitty ghost story, just keep doing submarine things and yelling submarine words at each other!”
Simmons also does a good job throwing in a lot of the elements I like to see in horror fiction:
1) Have the people in the story in an incredibly terrible situation. Forget about the monster: they’ll be lucky to survive even without a monster.
2) Add a monster.
3) Have one of the people in the situation wind up being way, way fucking worse than the monster.
4) Don’t play favorites: surprise me by killing people that I expect to live. This will make me think anyone can die, thus actually creating suspense.
5) Make the non-horror stuff interesting enough to get by on its own.
Stephen King was really good at these things in a number of his books, and Dan Simmons is good with them in this novel too.
In terms of Simmons’ monster, like I said, it’s almost kind of unnecessary: there’s enough horrible stuff happening without it. Plus, it’s not really scary, more gruesome, but no more gruesome than the other things happening. Plus, when you find out what it is, it’s kind of like, “Huh. Okie-dokie, then.” Also, if you have a monster in your book, describe it in great detail. Maybe I have no imagination, but when you keep describing it simply and vaguely as having a “triangular head,” I am basically just going to sit there picturing a literal triangle-headed monster. Like, flat with sharp points, and everything. And it looks really stupid in my head.
Anyway, I enjoyed the book! The ending went waaaaay out into left field, unsatisfying so, I think, but it’s only the very very end, so it doesn’t ruin the whole book or anything. If you like old-timey boats, and surgeons cutting off frost-bitten fingers, and a monster, and people writing in journals, and a book heavy enough to bludgeon cattle unconscious, there’s a lot to enjoy.