It all began with the TV series, based on a true story I had never heard about: that of the mysterious disappearance of British ships Erebus and Terror in the mid eighteenth century in the frozen waters of the Arctic, along with 129 men who were never seen again.
The series and the book – both under the same title “The Terror” – are based on true events – the expedition (known as the Franklin expedition due to its commander’s name, Sir John Franklin) was real and so were the officers and crew. The story is based on true facts until the time when the ships disappeared on the ice – and from then on Dan Simmons, the book’s author, created an intriguing, terrifying hypothesis as to what might have happened to the men and contributed to their disappearance. The series, produced by Sir Ridley Scott, reminded me of the first Alien movie, keeping us guessing rather than seeing until the last possible moment.
The story begins with the ships proudly sailing in already cold waters, with their gallant captain and officers embodying all the British pride and some arrogance too. Only one officer seems to be humble before Mother Nature – the captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier, a seasoned Irish officer who faced reality, not letting dreams of greatness numb his judgement.
The purpose of the expedition was to find the long sought after Northwest Passage that would allow ships to cross from the Arctic to the East – a new commercial route to Asia. As they went forward the weather grew cold and the ice got thicker around the ships, and Francis Crozier advised against continuing to follow that route. If they did, he predicted they would be stuck in the ice. But Sir John Franklin’s dreams of glory made him decide against Crozier’s warnings, and only a short time after both ships were immobilized on the ice – the sea had frozen and there was no getting out of there, so the men prepared to winter there.
What happens after – the encounter with the Inuit people and a silent lady in particular, the terrifying creature that looks like a huge sized bear but is something much more intelligent and malevolent, and begins stalking them and killing men in the most appalling ways; the bitter cold and other adverse weather conditions, the days and nights of darkness and the suspicion that the canned food they are eating is poisoned and causing the men to fall horribly ill; and the scurvy that befalls most of them, finally bring the very worst in human nature and turn most men into little less than beasts.
I first watched the series and then read the book, and I must say it’s amazingly well written – it’s so realistic you can actually see the desolate landscape and the suffering of the dying men. You can almost feel the bitter cold and the freezing wind, and when you put down the book you are left with a feeling of depression, of helplessness – you would like to reach out your hand and help those men in distress, but there’s nothing you can do, and you read on anxious to know what happens next… I had never read anything by Dan Simmons but I can say he’s a master of suspense.
Strong characters in a fascinating story
The characters in this story are strong and impressive: from the arrogant captain Sir John Franklin to wise but suffering Francis Crozier; from James Fitzjames, the handsome commander of the Erebus who at first emulates Sir John Franklin but in the end gives us a tremendous show of humanity; from the good doctor Harry Goodsir (true to his name) to the silent Esquimaux woman and, last but not least, the wicked Cornelius Hickey, and so many more men, officers, marines and sailors, all united in their fight for survival and their will to vanquish the Arctic.
I won’t tell you more because you should really read this book. It’s unputdownable, a fascinating story, mixing real facts with fiction, suspense with supernatural, mankind against Mother Nature (or the reverse), so much that I want to go on discovering more about it. After reading the novel, I now have a book about the real search for the Franklin expedition, the story of how the two ships were only found in 2014 and 2016, and the theories about what really happened. Even if the mystery has not been solved, nor will it ever be.