Dan Simmons: “The Terror” (c) 2007

Dan Simmons is an accomplished and versatile master story teller of horror and Sci-Fi.

“The Terror” is historical fiction based on real events and historical figures of  Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to locate the Northwest Passage in the Arctic, in 1845–1848. Franklin’s expedition sailed on two steamships of the Royal Navy, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships were last seen in Baffin Bay in July 1845.

Dan Simmons’ novel is a gripping fictional story of the fate of the seamen. The novel is character-driven: Set in the dangerous Arctic sea and landscape, Simmons’ characters convey in a powerful and vivid manner, their struggle for survival, and the horror of an unknown predator, the “thing on the ice” , an immense polar bear-like creature, that stalks the men.

Captain Francis Crozier of HMS Terror is the main character and narrator in the novel. The novel is also the story of his inward journey, and a life-changing decision as he learns more about the Arctic, its peoples and their ancient mythology.

The novel begins in October 1847. The ships have been frozen into an expanse of ice about 25 miles NNW of King William Island since September 1846, after Sir John Franklin’s decision to push through waters with floes and increasingly thickening ice. The driveshaft of the Erebus is broken.

The sea of ice is actually a maze of huge pressure ridges, icebergs, spires and pinnacles. And the ice is in constant motion: it surges and cracks, pushing the ships higher above the surface, and splinters and damages the stern, rudder, keel, wood & metal.

There is no Arctic spring or summer in 1847. Franklin sends out scouting parties across the ice to find open water. But there is only endless ice, and there is virtually no sign of the wildlife, the aquatic life that is abundant in the Arctic springs and summers. Food supplies become critical as the ships’ tinned provisions are often putrid.

One of the scouting parties returns to the ships with two “Esquimaux”, a young woman and an old man. The young woman is named “Lady Silence” – she is mute, as her tongue appears to have been bitten off. Silence remains with the expedition for a while.

In June1847, John Franklin is killed by the predator. Crozier becomes commander of the expedition, and James Fitzjames becomes the captain of the Erebus.

As winter approaches, the men face unrelenting cold, temperatures that plummet to 80-below; blizzards and blustery winds; and lightning storms. Food and coal supplies become critical. Starvation and disease set in as the months pass. More men are killed by the predator.

Crozier and Fitzjames realize their best hope for survival is to leave the ships, and make their way across to King William Island, and keep searching for open inlets along the coastline.

In 1848, the men begin their brutal and arduous journeys across ice, over the sea and along the coast . They man-haul their whaleboats, pinnaces, and supplies on sledges. They move from their first camp, Terror Camp, southwards, setting up two more camps. They are now at a Strait with open water, perhaps they can somehow reach the Great Fish River, and eventually open seas.

Many of the men die from exhaustion, exposure, and disease, including Fitzjames. The predator continues to stalk the men. Capt.Crozier defuses a mutiny, but eventually he lets the men decide their own fate. Some of the men choose to try to return to Terror Camp, and to HMS Terror. Others, like Crozier, choose to continue to move southwards along King William Island.

Crozier has Second Sight, and has had strange and fearful dreams of events to come. When Crozier is shot multiple times in an ambush by a mutineer, he is saved by Lady Silence. She is a shaman, a “spirit governor of the sky” with psychic and clairvoyant abilities. She is one of the shamans who can summon the predator and communicate with it. In the Arctic mythology, the predator is a demon spirit called the Tuunbaq, created millennia ago by an Esquimaux goddess, and that kills humans for their souls.

Silence and Crozier draw closer, able to communicate through their psychic abilities. In a life-changing decision, Crozier eventually becomes a spirit-governor, like Silence .


“The Terror” was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and
 the British Fantasy Award in 2008;  it was adapted for TV in 2018.