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.

No comments: