We’re a little over halfway through AMC’s adaptation of Dan Simmons’ weighty history horror classic The Terror, which brings a great novel to the screen with wit, intelligence, and brutal scares intact. If you really want to get under the skin of the Erebus expedition, or just can’t get enough of the cold weather and impossible monsters, pick up the novel and compare and contrast the two. Here are eight things to keep an eye out for both on the page and in the show as it continues.
The Terror is a heavily fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s final, disastrous journey to find the Northwest Passage. There are several histories of the voyage and its aftermath that are well worth reading. Many of the characters in the book and show are based on real members of the expedition, although their fates are inevitably very different. Equally inevitably, several of the more antagonistic characters and more horrifying elements of the story are fictional. As is the monster. We hope.
Played by genre all-time great Jared Harris, Captain Francis Crozier is very much a character to watch. The Terror puts all its characters through hell, but Crozier is arguably the one who spends the most time there. A principled officer, a high functioning alcoholic, and a man seething with rage at the fact his nationality (Irish) means his career will be permanently stymied, he’s a mercurial, glowering figure.
In many ways, Crozier is also one of the places where the book’s twin genres. horror and maritime thriller, mesh most perfectly. There’s definitely something of Hornblower to Francis Crozier, but there’s also his fiercely mortal awareness of how much trouble they’re all in, and his jet-black sense of humor. The show will surprise you more than once, Crozier will surprise you most of all.
Don’t Get Too Attached. To Anyone.
While the show looks like a Naval thriller, this is a horror story through and through. A terrifyingly small number of the people you’ve met will make it to the end, and if the series strays from the book, that number may drop even further. Simmons holds nothing back, and offers precious little hope to any of his characters.
What makes the story especially interesting is that the monster itself is not always responsible for the deaths. The brutal conditions of the Arctic environment, and the extremes the men are pushed to, prove to be just as much of a threat, if not more so.
This is environmental horror in the most primordial sense. From the moment the novel opens, the principle struggle is between humanity and weather, and the weather almost always has us on the ropes. That’s a brave choice for a horror novel in particular, but stick with it. You’ll get plenty of action, and gore, and context for both. You’ll also get a 700-plus page war story in which the enemy is the weather, and the weather almost always wins.
We’re past the halfway mark in the show right now, so you’ve got a good idea of the tone of the novel. If anything, the show is actually a teeny bit lighter. Simmons has, perhaps, a little too much fun describing the various biological horrors that an environment like this inflicts on people stupid enough to come to it unprepared. Very nearly the entire third act of the novel is devoted to this, with frequent diary entries from Doctor Goodsir that explore, in detail, the horrors of amputation in sub-zero temperatures and the insidious and gory effects of scurvy. You will want to eat lots of fruit after reading this book. Do so.
Much of the novel hinges on the Naval officers’ cheerfully bigoted, incompetent assumptions about Lady Silence, a member of the region’s indigenous Netsilik, and her people. Much of the rest of it deals with the differing approaches to homosexuality in the service at the time. To a modern audience, these elements will be almost as disturbing as the horror. In the hands of a lesser author, they might also play as sensationalist. Simmons makes sure there’s a reason, and consequences, for these prejudiced ways of thinking.
The novel measures every punch, but doesn’t pull a single one. Blanky’s frantic chase around the ship, pursued by the monster, is one of the best-written action sequences I’ve ever encountered. And there are more to come, including two moments in the closing chapters that will actually make you clap your hand to your mouth with dread. I’m eager to see how they shake out on screen.
You get them, I promise. This is not an ‘The end? OR IS IT?’ story in the slightest, at least in prose form. Simmons spends a lot of time at the close of the book tidying things up and you’re going to be satisfied with the results. You get answers for why this is happening, answers or hints at the fate of survivors and a very definite ending. So if you’re worried this is going to fall apart, don’t be.
The Terror isn’t a short read. However, if you like the series, you’ll love the book. Unflinchingly brutal and weirdly beautiful, with an ending that will stay with you, it’s one of Simmons very best. And now that the weather is warming up, you’ll feel much safer reading it…
Have you read The Terror? What do you think of the TV adaptation?