Today, I have picked up a new hard cover book written by one of my favorite authors, Dan Simmons, at a Magers & Quinn bookstore. The first novel I had purchased of his (and later subsequent copies for the purpose of replacing my original paper back fraying in disrepair), The Terror, fictitiously documents a most haunting and fascinating historical subject of my partiality, the Franklin Expedition.
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 skeletal fingers extend toward the ship, open, prepare to grasp, and pull back.
The temperature is -50 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast. Because of the fog that came through earlier, during the single hour of weak twilight now passing for their day, the foreshortened masts – the three topmasts, topgallants, upper rigging, and the highest spars have been removed and stored to cut down on the danger of falling ice and to reduce the chances of the ship capsizing because of the weight of ice on them – stand now like rudely pruned and topless trees reflecting the aurora that dances from one dimly seen horizon to the other. As Crozier watches, the jagged ice fields around the ship turn blue, then bleed violet, then glow as green as the hills of his childhood in northern Ireland. Almost a mile off the starboard bow, the gigantic floating ice mountain that hides Terror’s sister ship, Erebus, from view seems for a brief, false moment to radiate colour from within, glowing from its own cold, internal fires.
The book follows the lives of the real 129 English sailors and officers and their two ships, who, beginning in May of 1845, traversed the Canadien archipelago in order to locate the Northwest Passage; a proposed shipping route between Europe and Asia, that would cut seafaring travels by months. After two years, a mysterious disappearance, and no sightings by whalers and emergency expeditions following, the crews never returned home.
The Expedition’s story quickly unraveled in the decades following the disappearance, as search parties, turned research expeditions to find answers in light of the disaster, discovered three graves on a remote island where the two ships had wintered, followed by scattered debris of artifacts, skeletons, and finally lifeboats carrying supplies south of the ships’ last reported positions, frozen in the frame of a survival effort.
Modern day research of the artifacts, officers’ notes, and the exhumation of the graves have revealed the sailors’ fate worsened by the effects of an unusual seasonal pack ice stranding the ships for over two years, lead poisoning traced to the saliors’ canned rations, and under-prepared garments to face the extreme cold of the polar regions.
Dan Simmons took this fascinating subject and its musty, morbid appeal and transformed it into a historically fictional thriller of sheer terror, while including his own supernatural take on how the crew perished in the presence of an invincible monster, conjured from Esquimaux mythology, stalking the unwelcome men and trapping them until their death. That is Simmons’ appeal, the ability to deepen such a fascinating subject and give satisfying answers as to the sailors’ copings in a black, winter hell, raising more of a curiosity for the subject in the reader, rather than providing dumbed-down remedies as to how the mystery came to resolve.
It was a lot to handle in such a lesser-known novel. The research was noticeably painstaking, the character development seducing, and the execution of one of Western civilization’s most intriguing secrecies, fulfilling.
So it was with no hesitation that I purchased another novel of his, once again set in the Victorian Era, following (what I presume) the final years of English writer Charles Dickens.
Reading the first page of the first chapter created the image of an insane spawn of Dicken’s imagination, detailing the last wayward and diminishing years of the renowned social critic’s life, set in the slums of London. So it was with no hesitation that I purchased this book, indeed.
I treat this as both a project and a leisure, for I love studying this author’s work and modeling my own skills to be proximate to his. His style is incredibly deep and rich, and if I could write something even remotely as detailed, thoughtful, and steadfast as his ambitiously collaborated historical fictions, I would be honored and ever-pleased. This is especially imperative for my historical fiction, AscheMorgen, expounding the life of Erwin Rommel, a Nazi Field Marschall who conspired to kill Adolf Hitler.
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief.