Sunday, April 29, 2007

Too Many Words

An article on the Times online site details how Orion Books is slimming down some classics in order to make them more appealing to modern readers who are strapped for time, but still want to be able to say that they've read the originals. According to Malcolm Edwards of Orion, research confirmed that 'many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring'. Presumably sensing a marketing opportunity, Orion realised that 'life is too short to read all the books you want to'; thus the decision to trim David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Wives and Daughters by 30–40%, by eliminating words, sentences, paragraphs, and even whole chapters. As the above makes clear, it's not just readers' busy lives that Orion is concerned about; there's also the fact that the classics can, in their view, be somewhat on the difficult and boring side. The cuts have been made in an attempt to 'make the story and characters emerge', and make the books that much easier for poor twenty-first century readers to understand. Said Mr Edwards, 'Moby Dick must have been difficult in 1850—in 2007 it’s nigh-on impossible to make your way through it.'

Orion seems to be playing up the time—or lack of it—element more than the difficulty side, pitching their new editions as the perfect solution for those who want to appear well-read but simply don't have the time, in our busy modern world, to sit down and read every page of the originals. Oddly enough, I'd have a bit more sympathy if they played up the difficulty angle, because a good many classic books can, to a modern reader unfamiliar with the world depicted and the language used, be somewhat daunting. Here, though, I agree with Matthew Crockatt, a London bookseller who says, 'I’m afraid reading some of these books is hard work, which is why you have to develop as a reader. If people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.'

Well said, Mr Crockatt. As readers, we all start off with books on the level of the 'Dick and Jane' titles that were still in use when I was in Grade One, and then graduate to progressively more difficult works as we work our way through school, until we're reading Macbeth in high school and (if the education system has done its job) understanding it. The trick—although it's hardly that, more common sense and a bit of work—is to build gradually, going from book to book until before you know it you're reading Our Mutual Friend and recognising that while the setting and language might be different to what we're used to, the characters and their reasons for acting the way they do aren't so very far removed from the people we see around us, and read about in the newspapers, each day. To use a sporting analogy, no one would advise an armchair athlete who wanted to run in a 10 kilometre event to just lace up a pair of trainers and go do it; instead, he or she would be advised to follow a programme which starts off slowly—running for one minute out of every five the first week, say—and then builds on that over the course of several weeks until, by the end of training, he or she is running the entire distance. In this way, a goal that seemed daunting, if not impossible, at the outset of training can be accomplished (of which I am living proof; I used such a programme, and was able to complete three 10K runs and even a half-marathon, a triumph of determination over innate physical ability if ever there was one. But I digress).

However, building one's way up to reading Moby Dick does take a fair bit of—and here's that word again—time, which, according to the well-meaning folk at Orion, is something of which we simply don't have enough. Their thoughts, apparently, are along the lines that if someone doesn't have time to read the unabridged version of Moby Dick, one certainly doesn't have time to do all the reading that will get him or her to the point where they can sit and read Melville's book. Here is where I start to get a bit cross. I can understand, and to a degree sympathise with, the point of view which says 'Such-and-such is long and difficult; not only do I not really understand it, it's a bit on the dull side, and I'm not enjoying it.' I'll read just about anything you care to put my way, doorstopper-sized classics included, but even I, moi qui vous parle, confess to having been somewhat bored by a few Approved Classics By Revered Authors that I've read (no names, no pack drill; but I can't think I'll ever be picking up Dickens's Barnaby Rudge again, at least not without a healthy financial incentive). Books are meant to be enjoyed; if you're not enjoying what you're reading, for whatever reason, put it down and go on to something else. But don't start whingeing about how you don't have time to sit down and read Wives and Daughters or David Copperfield. If something is important enough to you—whether it's reading a book or planting a garden or taking part in amateur theatricals or pick-up hockey games—you'll find the time to do it. How many of the people who claim they don't have time to read Vanity Fair will tell you, in the same breath, that they won't miss an episode of Lost or House or Desperate Housewives, or that they've made it to level 379 of some video game or other, or that now that baseball season is here they find they have a lot less spare time than they used to?

The bottom line is that those who want to read David Copperfield will read it; those who don't, or who don't feel they have the time, won't, and chopping 40% of Dickens's text is unlikely to make much difference to the latter group. The Orion 'compact' editions will doubtless make a bit of a splash for the short term; but in ten years or so I suspect that Dickens's unabridged version will still be readily available, while the Orion version will be long forgotten (the less than compelling cover illustration—see above—won't help much, either). For those who do pick up and read the abridged version: good for you. But don't try telling me you've read Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, or I shall be compelled to point out that no, you haven't, not really: you've read what someone else thinks Charles Dickens's David Copperfield should be, which is a very different matter; one that's as true as taxes is, and nothing, as Barkis points out, is truer than them. At least, Barkis points this out in the original; whether he continues to do so in the Orion version remains to be seen.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes

While it's undoubtedly a boon—for those of us who live a good ways from the nearest bookstore—to be able to purchase books via the Internet, practicality's gain is often serendipity's loss. Online book sites are excellent—as long as you know precisely what you want. In a real bookstore, however, the customer is free to wander the aisles at will, pull this or that book off the shelf purely on the basis of a whim, read the jacket copy and perhaps a paragraph or two, and decide if this relationship is meant to be. It's pleasing to emerge from a bookstore with a book you went in knowing you wanted; it's even more pleasing to come out with a book that you had no idea existed.

Christopher discovered Barry Aitchison's Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes & Further Arcane Inducements to Wonder (Velluminous Press, 2006) on a table in a Barnes & Noble in New York this past January. I don't know what about the book particularly caught his eye; perhaps the eye on the cover caught him. At any rate, it was added to our purchases, and Christopher read it not long after we got home. Searching the shelves the other night for something to read, I spotted this title, and remembered that Christopher had enjoyed it; and having just finished it, I can say with some confidence that a good many people will enjoy Aitchison's romp, which is part-fantasy, part-science fiction, and part-small town comedy. It concerns the small midwestern town of Parcival—pop. 2800 or so—which, one Sunday evening, disappears off the face of the Earth. Unfortunately, no one—including the Parcivalians—notices this fact until Tuesday morning.

The finger of suspicion immediately points to mysterious newcomer Quentin C. Coriander, who arrived in Parcival one day without anyone seeing him: he was simply there, a part of the landscape, and accepted by the townsfolk as something of an odd duck, but essentially harmless. However, once Parcival and its inhabitants find themselves nowhere on Earth, people start disappearing, and Coriander displays a seemingly unwholesome interest in fresh-cooked meat—despite the considerable inducements of Miss Merriwether's spectacular cakes, made specially for him—the townsfolk decide that Something Must Be Done, although they're not quite sure what.

Aitchison—whose first novel this is—displays a sure touch, juggling a large cast of characters and telling the story in brief bites which tell just enough to move the plot along, but always leave you on tenterhooks, wanting to turn the pages faster to see how this particular plot strand develops. His observations of small-town life are spot on, and the book is laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Beware: it's the kind of book that you shouldn't read with other people in the room, or you'll spend a lot of time reading bits out to them while trying not to laugh too hard. You'll also develop a serious craving for baked goods, after reading the author's descriptions of some of Miss Alice's cakes. Aitchison has included recipes for some of Alice's creations; if anyone bakes up the non-poisonous version of the 'Gourmet Chocolate and Brandy Cream Cake', I'd be much obliged for a slice.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Boys' Own Books

The Guardian recently reported the following:

'The runaway success of "The Dangerous Book for Boys" has inspired Penguin to start a list of "boy's own" classics. Six end-of-empire adventure tales are being given nostalgic covers, aimed squarely at the Father's Day market in June. They are: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; She by H. Rider Haggard; The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope; The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers; The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. A dashing collection for any middle-aged boy's bookshelf.'

One commentator has pointed out that five of the six titles listed above were not originally aimed at boys; rather, they were intended for adults. Surely it should be four-and-a-half, for The Lost World is prefaced by a verse which reads:

'I have wrought my simple plan
If I bring one hour of joy
To the boy who's half a man
Or the man who's half a boy.'

Of course, quite where this leaves female readers is unclear, both regarding Conan Doyle's book and the six titles as a whole. Did ACD think that neither girls nor women would enjoy The Lost World? And do the folk at Penguin think that these books—with their emphasis on adventure, thrills, and derring-do—are more apt to strike a chord with men than with women? I've read three of the books on the list and enjoyed them thoroughly, and expect I would enjoy the other three equally as much; indeed, they're all on that ever-expanding list of books that I mean to get to before I shuffle off this mortal coil, and at the rate the list is growing I shall have to live well beyond my allotted three score and ten in order to fit them all in.

It does make me ponder, though, the difference between men and women when it comes to reading. All my life I've read widely and happily in a variety of genres. When I was younger I was as apt to pick up a Three Investigators book as a Nancy Drew, and these days I'll read Robert Goddard, John Buchan, and George MacDonald Fraser as readily as I will pick up books by Joanne Harris or Patricia Carlon. However, a quick look at the list of books I've read over the last three years shows that the vast majority are by men, and are probably aimed at a male market. The preponderance of books about the Arctic probably skews things to a certain extent: as a novel I read recently comments, relatively few women seem to be interested in, say, the Franklin Expedition, and I suspect more men than women have read Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm, Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, Eric Lomax's The Railway Man, and Andrew Greig's Summit Fever (all of which I would highly recommend; more of Greig in a future post).

The point is, however, that while many women undoubtedly pick up and enjoy books that are aimed at men, fewer men would consider reading anything that seemed, however vaguely, to be aimed at women. When I was reading Nancy Drew books I would have been happy to read Hardy Boys adventures as well, and probably would have had I not gone on to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie at an early age; but how many boys who gobbled up the Hardy Boys books would have been equally comfortable reading Nancy Drew? Not many, I'd wager.

So I wish Penguin every success with their new line of classic 'boys' own' adventures; but I'd be interested to know how many women end up picking them up and enjoying them too. They'd certainly make as good a Mother's Day gift as a Father's Day gift, with the added advantage that they'll last longer than flowers, contain fewer calories than chocolates, and provide more enjoyment than an overpriced Mother's Day brunch at a crowded restaurant.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Road to the Stanley Cup: 1

Eighty-two regular season hockey games have come and gone, and now the real fun begins: the Stanley Cup playoffs. Sixteen of the thirty teams in the league make it to round one, and the Vancouver Canucks—whose fortunes I've followed since they joined the league in 1970—are one of them. The first round pits the ’Nucks (3rd overall in the Western Conference) against the sixth place Dallas Stars, and game one started last night (11 April) at 7.00 pm PDT. It ended a few minutes ago on 12 April, around 12.30 am PDT, just a couple of minutes shy of the end of the fourth overtime period; it's now the sixth longest game in Stanley Cup playoff history. Sudden death overtime is bad enough; four periods of it is apt to have players and fans alike reaching for an oxygen mask. Fortunately the Canucks prevailed 5–4, so that's one game down, as many as twenty-seven to go (fingers crossed). I don't know if I can take too many more games like this one, though.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recommended (Arctic) reading: Part One

The interest that Dan Simmons's The Terror has stirred up regarding the Franklin Expedition has prompted a handful of people to ask me to recommend some good non-fiction books about it, as they want to read some more. Herewith a few books that might be best saved for summer reading, to cool you down when the temperatures rise.


The keystone work in this field is still Canadian historian Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909 (Random House), which gives an excellent overview of the subject. The dates weren't chosen randomly: 1818 was the year in which Franklin made his first foray into the north, and 1909 saw not one but two men claiming to be the first to reach the North Pole. The Franklin Expedition and the expeditions which went in search of it are covered extensively. Berton wasn't Canada's best known, and most popular, historian without good reason: The Arctic Grail is, like all his works, immensely readable, although an overview like this can only give a taste of some of the larger-than life personalities who were drawn to the Arctic.


Two books cited by Simmons in his acknowledgements for The Terror are both excellent overviews of the Franklin Expedition in particular. Owen Beattie and John Geiger's Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (Bloomsbury/Graystone) details the exhumation, in 1984 and 1986, of three Franklin Expedition sailors who died early on in the voyage and were buried on remote Beechey Island. The sailors' bodies were remarkably well preserved, enabling Beattie and his team to carry out autopsies and analyses which showed far higher levels of lead in the sailors than is considered healthy, and gave rise to the theory—believed by some, debunked by others—that the lead used in the tins of food which the expedition relied on was one of the main causes of the tragedy. Be sure to get the revised edition, which includes an interesting foreword by Margaret Atwood, who discusses the influence that the Beattie expedition had on some of her own fiction.

Scott Cookman's Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition (Wiley) also fingers the tinned food as a culprit, but posits that it was botulism, not lead, which contaminated the food. Tinned food was an innovation in 1845, and many felt that it would alleviate that most dreaded of sailors' diseases, scurvy; but the processes necessary to ensure that the food was thoroughly cooked prior to the tins being sealed were not always in place, and the problem was compounded by the food freezing and then thawing over the course of the voyage, and not being heated properly prior to being consumed. The suspicion that the tinned food had something to do with the tragedy is borne out by the fact that the officers—who ate more of the tinned food (which was considered a delicacy) than the common seamen—suffered a disproportionate number of losses early in the expedition.

Ken McGoogan's Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History (HarperCollins) is a superb look at a remarkable woman, to whom the adjective 'indomitable' is applied with monotonous (but accurate) regularity. She was a woman who was far ahead of her time, and undoubtedly the driving force in the Franklin household: McGoogan paints a convincing portrait of a woman who lived vicariously through her husband, using his various appointments as a way to see and do things that would otherwise have been denied her. The volume focuses more on Lady Franklin than on her husband, and thus the Franklin Expedition is seen through the eyes of the woman who was left behind, and whose indomitable will sent governments scrambling to send expeditions in search of Franklin and his men. Ironically, more men were lost searching for Franklin than were lost on the expedition itself; their stories are as fascinating, and as fraught with tragedy, as Franklin's own, and will be the subject of another post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

One ordinary day with pictures

Ah, the first tentative appearance of graphics on the blog! This can only mean that I'm starting to find my way round; either that, or I have far too much time on my hands (or both). Thanks to Christopher for sorting out the pictures and the Terror cover, which really is splendid, and far nicer than the cover of the British edition. Why publishers seem obsessed with having different covers for different markets leaves me puzzled, particularly when one of the designs is so much better than another. This photo shows Christopher (far right), our son Tim (centre), and me with Terror author Dan Simmons in Seattle in February of 2007; many thanks to John Pelan for taking the picture.

The photograph that accompanies my profile was taken in summer 2006, and bears, I think, a passing resemblance to a respected British actress. Some people are fortunate enough to look like Nicole Kidman or Catherine Zeta-Jones or Kate Winslet; if the resemblance is indeed there, I look like Penelope Wilton from, amongst other things, Shaun of the Dead. Ah well, it could be worse; I could look like that film's Nick Frost.

Here's another picture, taken in January 2007. I'd like to say that this shot was taken in front of a portion of our library, with me in my usual around-the-house garb, ready for a cosy night in, but truth in advertising laws compel me to admit that it was taken at the formal dinner of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York, and that this is not standard attire at the Roden household. We do have several bookcases that look almost as impressive, though, if not quite so tidy.

And here's one more, taken at the BSI dinner in New York in 2005. Not only am I standing with three distinguished gentlemen—from left Peter Straub, Michael Dirda, and Christopher Roden—but the picture was taken by another distinguished gent, Neil Gaiman.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Strange things done in the midnight sun

I can't now remember when or why I first become interested in Arctic exploration. My father, who was a Royal Canadian Mountie for twenty-one years, gave me several books about the early days of the Force, and the two stories which fascinated me both took place in Northern Canada: the story of the Lost Patrol of 1910, which disappeared on what was supposed to be a routine trip between Fort McPherson and Dawson, and the saga of the Mad Trapper of Rat River (who was not a trapper, and almost certainly not mad, and didn't live in Rat River, but that's neither here nor there). The first true Arctic adventure I ever read about was the voyage of the R.C.M.P. vessel St Roch, the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east; the ship itself is now at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, for anyone interested in paying a visit.

In the mid-1980s I became fascinated with an expedition to remote Beechey Island in the Arctic, to disinter and autopsy three men who died early on in the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Since that time I have read many books dealing with Arctic and North Pole exploration in general, and the Franklin expedition—and the expeditions which it in turn inspired, many of which were pretty eventful in and of themselves—in particular, fascinated by these men who, time and again, braved incredible hardship and the constant threat of debilitating illness, or death, or both, in search of something which was either a figment of the imagination (the Open Polar Sea), unnavigable by ships of the time (the Northwest Passage), or a featureless spot on an expanse of ice that is of no practical or strategic use (the North Pole).

What drove these men? What forced them, time and again, to pit themselves against the elements, and sometimes each other, return to civilisation (if they were fortunate), and then do it again? The wives of some of these men called themselves 'ice widows', and it is hard to understand why they did what they did. After two or three winters iced in, battling rats, scurvy, starvation, and cold, you'd think that the men who made it safely home would kiss the ground and swear never to go near the Arctic again. Yet as soon as the Admiralty, or the American government, announced another Arctic expedition, these same men would be lined up, ready and eager to sign on.

I'm also a lifelong admirer (and occasional writer) of ghost and supernatural stories; so when I found that Dan Simmons had written a novel called The Terror, which combined the saga of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition with a supernatural element, I was almost counting the days until the novel came out. I picked it up in New York the week it was published, began reading it before I returned home, and finished it in three days once I was safely back; no mean feat when you consider that the novel is more than 750 pages long. To say I was impressed with the novel would be an understatement; it's one of the finest books I've read in some time, and I could wish that it had been published in 2005, as it would then have figured very high in my own shortlist as a World Fantasy Awards judge.

I don't often write reviews for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, which I edit—I prefer to leave that to other, more capable, hands—but I was inspired to review The Terror for the journal's pages; it will be appearing in the spring issue. Here it is, for those who can't wait.

THE TERROR by Dan Simmons

Little, Brown, 2007; 769pp; hbk; US$25.99/Cdn$32.99; ISBN 978-0-316-01744-2

Reviewed by Barbara Roden

On 26 July 1845, Sir John Franklin and the 128 men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sailed out of sight of the western world and entered the realm of legend. They were charged with discovering the fabled Northwest Passage, the northern sea route which was thought to link the Atlantic with the Pacific and which was the Holy Grail of northern Arctic explorers. To the man who discovered the Northwest Passage would accrue honour and glory beyond his wildest dreams; or, in this case, to the man who commanded the expedition which found it, for this was firmly Sir John Franklin’s show, known as ‘The Franklin Expedition’ before the ships had even set sail. On paper, Sir John may have seemed a likely candidate to lead the project—he had already led three Polar expeditions—but in hindsight his qualifications were less than stellar. None of his previous expeditions had been a success: indeed, his disastrous 1819 venture had led to Franklin being known throughout England as ‘the man who ate his boots’, a nod to the privations the group suffered (it now seems certain that others in the group ate something worse than their boots), and Franklin never entirely shook off his reputation of being a capable duffer who achieved the heights he did through connections and the influence of his indomitable second wife, Lady Jane Franklin, rather than through any innate ability or qualities of leadership.

For these we must look to the expedition’s second-in-command, Captain Francis Crozier, in charge of the Terror and a far more accomplished Polar explorer, sailor, and leader of men than Franklin could ever hope to be. Crozier, an Irish Presbyterian, had repeatedly seen other men—less qualified, but more ‘acceptable’—promoted over him, a point which festered; and while he was almost certainly looked on as the leader of the expedition by the men under him, it would have been Franklin who received the plaudits and attention, and whose name was forever attached to the expedition. A pity, that, for if it had been ‘the Crozier expedition’ it might well have had a very different and much less tragic outcome; in much the same way that if another real life drama involving cannibalism, which unfolded at almost precisely the same time, had been ‘the Reed party’ rather than ‘the Donner party’, tragedy might have been averted altogether.

Erebus and Terror had been outfitted as state of the art icebreakers, utilising the most up to date technology available at the time, including engines to drive the ships, with their specially reinforced hulls, through the ice. The ships were also provisioned with enough food to last them three years on full rations and up to five years on short rations, a luxury achieved through the use of that new innovation, tinned food, supplied by a provisioner named Goldner whose bid was so low, and promises regarding quality and delivery time so grandiose and optimistic, that warning flags should immediately have gone up. As it was, the provisions were delivered so late that the ships had to be largely unpacked so that the food could be stowed, and there was no time to inspect the provisions for quality, a factor which contributed greatly to the tragedy which was soon to unfold.

What we know about this tragedy firsthand is rather sketchy. As with a tragedy which occurred thirty years later, albeit in a very different setting—the massacre of General George Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn in 1876—there were no white survivors to tell the tale, and native accounts were contradictory or vague or both. It was not until 1848 that the first search parties set out in search of Franklin and his men, and the first traces of the ill-fated expedition were not discovered until 1854, when John Rae met with a party of Inuit who had relics which could only have come from Franklin’s party. The story they told was of a forlorn and desperate group of kabloonas—white men—who had staggered out of the north, leaving a trail of dead behind them, along with evidences of cannibalism. Rae took his findings back to England, where he was roundly denounced for suggesting that British sailors would eat their dead shipmates but in 1859 another search party found remains which showed unmistakable signs of cannibalism. This same party also discovered the only written record left behind by the expedition: a document stored in a cairn, which contained two messages, one written in 1847 indicating all was well and another written around the margin of the first a year later, stating that Franklin and more than twenty others were dead, and that the survivors were heading south. Ironically, the search teams looking for Franklin and his men succeeded where he had failed: not only was it established that there was no direct Northwest Passage—or none that could be traversed by ships of the day—but most of the remaining blanks on the map of the Arctic were filled in for once and all.

Another similarity which the Franklin expedition shares with the Custer tragedy is that the bulk of what we now know about the two events has only come about in the last two decades or so, using modern forensic techniques. In the case of Custer, a fire which raged across the Little Bighorn site enabled scientists to uncover a wealth of previously hidden evidence, and thus piece together exactly what happened. In the case of Franklin, a scientific team led by Dr Owen Beattie exhumed the remarkably preserved bodies of three early casualties of the Franklin expedition, buried on desolate Beechey Island near the start of the voyage, and discovered astonishingly high levels of lead in the men. This, in turn, led to an investigation of the tins of food taken on the voyage—abandoned tins from the Franklin Expedition may still be found in the Arctic—and the discovery that they were soldered with lead on the inside, thus allowing the lead to leach into the food over the course of the voyage. Writer Scott Cookman took this a step further in his book Ice Blink, showing that the provisioner, Goldner, not only failed to ensure that the tins were soldered completely, thereby allowing bacteria into the tins, but that the food was inadequately cooked prior to delivery, thus making sure that thriving colonies of bacteria were present in many of the tins.

Dan Simmons acknowledges his debt to Cookman’s volume at the end of The Terror, a masterful look at, and reimagining of, the expedition and what happened. It begins in 1847, at a point when Sir John Franklin is already dead, and then switches back and forth in time, now recounting the origins of the expedition and the histories of some of the men involved, now shifting to the present, when the men are already starting to show signs of that most dreaded of sailor’s diseases, scurvy. The ship’s medical crew know that for some reason fresh food—particularly lemon juice—is an effective antiscorbutic, but their lemon juice has lost its efficacy, and there is little fresh food to be had, the men relying more and more on Goldner’s tinned food, which they have little means to heat thoroughly. Thus the men are now dying of lead and food poisoning, neither of which would have been understood by the medical men. In addition, both Erebus and Terror have been frozen in the same spot for more than a year, with no hope of escape in sight; both ships are being relentlessly ground to pieces by the ever-moving ice packs; the temperature dips as low as -100ยบ F., and the men have no way of getting or keeping warm, or of drying out their sodden, frozen layers of wool clothing; Franklin, their leader, is dead; the men realise that there is so little hope of rescue from outside parties that they might as well be on the moon; and when the food runs out they face the very real prospect of having to eat their dead.

For most novelists all this would be horror enough, and Simmons superbly evokes the despair and misery of the increasingly tortured survivors who, under Crozier’s lead, abandon their ships to the ice and set out on a journey across the frozen wastes which would have taxed even healthy men on full rations, and which takes its inevitable toll on the diseased and starving men. Some of the most horrific passages in the book detail exactly what happens to the human body when scurvy takes hold, or how best to dissect a human body so as to get at the flesh and fat, and Simmons brilliantly describes and evokes the tortuous passage of the men across the ever-shifting ice, man-hauling sledges which weigh more than half a ton each:


Somehow Des Voeux had kept them moving to the northeast, but every day the weather worsened, the pressure ridges grew closer together, the necessary deviations from their course became longer and more treacherous, and the sledge sustained serious damage in their Herculean struggle to haul and shove it over the jagged ice ridges. Two days were lost just repairing the sledge in the howl of wind and blowing snow.

The mate had decided to turn around on their fourteenth morning on the ice. With only one tent left, he gauged their chances of survival as low. They then tried to follow their own thirteen days of ruts back to the ships, but the ice was too active—shifting slabs, moving bergs within the pack ice, and new pressure ridges rising in front of them had obliterated their tracks. Des Voeux, the finest navigator on the Franklin Expedition except for Crozier, took theodolite and sextant readings in the few clear moments he found in the days and nights but ended up setting his course based mostly on dead reckoning. He told the men that he knew precisely where they were. He was sure, he later admitted to Fitzjames and Crozier, that he would miss the ships by twenty miles.

On their last night on the ice, the final tent ripped and they abandoned their sleeping bags and pressed on to the southwest blindly, man-hauling just to stay alive. They jettisoned their extra food and clothing, continued to man-haul the sledge only because they needed their water, shotguns, cartridges, and powder. Something large had been following them for their entire voyage. They could see it through the spindrift and fog and pelting hail. They could hear it circling them each endless night in the darkness.


And here we have—at last—the reason this book is being reviewed in All Hallows: the Thing on the Ice. It has been dogging the expedition since their first icy winter, and in the beginning the men view it as simply a large Arctic bear of the sort they have been encountering throughout the journey. However, the Thing rapidly proves to be more than a bear: it has certain physical similarities to, but is far larger than, even the largest polar bear, and possessed of a keen intelligence and the ability to materialise out of nowhere and disappear as suddenly. At first it confines itself to picking off men who are unfortunate enough to be on the ice on their own; but in one terrifying set-piece it gets into one of the ice-bound ships, leaving a trail of death and devastation which continues above decks, where Ice Master Thomas Blanky takes refuge in the spars and ropes and then tries to elude the creature among the pressure ridges and seracs on the ice, desperately searching for a space large enough to hide in yet small enough that the Thing cannot follow. Later, as the survivors press on by sledge, they are aware of the creature always following, yet the attacks cease—for a time. When they resume, it is with a ferocity that shakes the survivors to the core, as they wonder what will kill them first: the cold, starvation, the diseases wracking their bodies, or the malevolent creature dogging their trail. Following the committal to the deep of three of the party—or at least as much of their bodies as have been found—the surviving medical officer, Harry Goodsir, writes:


All of us, I believe, were Thinking that these words were a Eulogy and Farewell for each one of us. Up until this Day and the loss of Lieutenant Little’s boat with all his men—including the irreplaceable Mr Reid and the universally liked Mr Peglar—I suspect that many of us still thought that we might Live. Now we know that the odds of that had all but Disappeared.

The long awaited and Universally Cheered Open Water was a vicious Trap.

The Ice will not give us up.

And the creature from the ice will not allow us to leave.


The novel is written in a series of chapters told from the points of view of a large cast of characters, and it is to Simmons’s enormous credit that each of these men has an individual and distinct voice. From the bare facts known of these men—many of whom are, at this remove, merely names on a muster roll—he has created a series of fully-rounded characters, taking the barest of clues and hints and suppositions and spinning them into something wholly convincing. For example, Scott Cookman writes, in Ice Blink, that one of the bodies, that of a steward, was found years later with a pocketful of possessions, including a notebook belonging to Petty Officer Harry Peglar. Writes Cookman, ‘Peglar, starving, had either died on the march or been left at Erebus Bay and entrusted the book to the steward who, despite his own sufferings, tenderly carried it homeward, intent on delivering it to Peglar’s relatives.’ Simmons has expanded on this brief reference and the word ‘tenderly’ to build up a wholly convincing friendship, even love, between Peglar and Steward John Bridgens, whom he posits met on the voyage of the Beagle in 1831; these references to such contemporary people and things as Darwin, telegrams, and Poe (one brilliant section owes much to ‘The Masque of the Red Death’) remind us that while these men were stuck in a featureless landscape at the top of the world, life continued, however impossibly far away. Surgeon Harry Goodsir begins the book as a rather comical figure, inclined not to be taken seriously by anyone, yet over the course of the book he grows into a strong and dignified man who has earned the respect of the survivors. One by one Simmons does this with many of the characters, showing how extreme hardship brings out the best—or worst—in humans: characters who start out as seemingly honourable are shown to harbour a darkness within them which is even more terrifying than the malignancy of the creature stalking them, while other men, like Goodsir, rise to the occasion, and become, almost in spite of themselves, better. Nowhere is this more marked than in the case of Crozier, who begins the novel as a bitter man who is seldom sober, and who decides that when his private supply of whisky is exhausted he will take his own life, rather than face the horrors around him without the numbing effects of drink. By the time that moment arrives, however, Crozier finds that the flames of life and responsibility burn too fiercely for him to give up, and that the man he has become will not allow him to throw his life away while there remains a hope of survival. To that end he endures a nightmarish withdrawal scene which leads him to the brink of death, and also lays the seeds for the revelations of the book’s final 100 pages, where all the threads are drawn together into an ending which is as strangely beautiful, yet horrifying, as it is right.

Simmons has also managed brilliantly to work within the known facts of the expedition, finding explanations which fit logically and seamlessly into his interpretation of events to answer some of the anomalies which still puzzle Franklin experts. Why, for example, did the men abandon ship yet drag with them so many articles—Bibles, novels, writing desks, china—for which they had no practical use? Why was one of the sledge-mounted boats found, with two skeletons—one intact, one in pieces—miles away from where the survivors are known to have gone, and facing in the wrong direction, that is northwest towards the abandoned ships and not southeast towards their hope of escape? Why did the officers on board both ships suffer a disproportionately large number of casualties early in the expedition? And what of the reports of some Inuit that one of the men survived, and spent the rest of his life living in a native village? All of Simmons’s explanations fit perfectly, as does his only significant addition to the known cast of characters: an enigmatic Inuit woman known by the crew as Lady Silence, who many are soon convinced is a Jonah, or witch, and who may be in league with the Ice Creature.

The Terror is a superb book, and that comparatively rare beast, a historical novel which does not ring false at any point. It is also a terrifying novel of the supernatural, with more than a few echoes of Algernon Blackwood. Its length may seem daunting, but make sure that when you start reading it you have a few days clear: for once you pick it up, you will not want to stop until the story ends.

Dipping my toe in the water

Blogs seem to be the new 'must have' accessory: like a cell phone, a Blackberry, and a Facebook page. I have a cell phone (which I seldom use), can't think I'd have any practical use for a Blackberry, and have no inclination whatever to start a Facebook page, so it looks as if blogging it will be. I've considered—and rejected—the idea of a blog in the past; so why should today be any different? To which my only answer is: why not? There's a wonderful passage in Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party when a young child asks her grandfather why he is always writing in his 'big black notebook', to which the grandfather replies, 'It's my Game Book. Well, part of it is my Game Book. Part of it is my thoughts. It's not a bad idea to get into the habit of writing down one's thoughts. It saves one having to bother anyone else with them.'

So this will be a place for me to write down my thoughts: all those random musings, comments, questions, and general ideas to which I'm prone. I used to keep a diary, regularly, for many years, but have rather fallen out of the habit, so don't expect daily postings; rather, I'll jot down thoughts as they come to me, as long as they're thoughts which I think will be of some interest to others. I love books and films, and read a lot of the former and watch (or re-watch) a lot of the latter, so expect a fair few comments—even the occasional full-fledged review—on what I've been reading or watching lately, or books and films that I've enjoyed in the past.

Okay: let's get this show on the road!