The Abominable

Dan Simmons recently celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his first publication: the short story “The River Styx Runs Upstream,” which appeared in Twilight Zone magazine in 1982. Credit for discovering Simmons goes jointly to Harlan Ellison, who had Simmons as a student in a workshop and recognized his talent, and the perspicacious but generally under-acknowledged Twilight Zone editor T.E.D. Klein. (I’ve always felt a kind of generational and circumstantial kinship to Simmons, since Klein bought my own first story some three years later.)

In those three decades Simmons has written about thirty books, and they have sorted themselves out across at least five genres: horror, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and crime fiction. Simmons exhibits a roving, curious intellect not content to inhabit any one literary niche, a hummingbird darting among the blossoms. His fascination for a variety of subject matters, traditions, and styles means that each book of his, while harking back to certain of its siblings, will likely represent something new in his career.

Allied spiritually to his novel from 2007, The Terror, which told the tale of the doomed Arctic mission in search of the Northwest Passage undertaken by Captain John Franklin, his newest book, The Abominable, also conflates rich historical verisimilitude with fantastical doings. But ratios are reversed this time out. Whereas the supernatural maintained a central role in The Terror, the uncanny is only a dash of seasoning in The Abominable: piquant and essential to the recipe, but not the main ingredient.

Like some twenty-first-century H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, Simmons opens the book with a classic gambit: a credibility-establishing introduction detailing the history of the manuscript we now hold in our hands. In 1991 a dying old adventurer, one Jake Perry, ostensibly regaled Simmons with enigmatic tales of his exploits with Admiral Byrd and other contemporaries from the early part of the twentieth century, hinting at even more exotic incidents he could not speak of. With death from cancer imminent, Simmons continues, Perry promised to capture his secret memoirs on paper. Perry came through, but the results got lost for two decades, only reaching Simmons recently. Now, Simmons promises, we shall experience the long-delayed account.

The subsequent narration, in Perry’s charmingly nuanced, first-person, present-tense voice, unfolds in a leisurely but never overstuffed fashion that agreeably emulates that of fiction from the mid-1920s setting of the story. There are glancing references from Perry to his life in 1991, when he is allegedly composing this memoir in a nursing home, but Simmons steers clear of any metafictional games: this reads like the work of a reflective Doctor Watson, rendering his account just subsequent to a thrilling chase.

We open atop the placid but still potentially lethal Matterhorn — suitably enough, for a novel devoted to the glories and dangers, seductions, and frights of mountaineering. Three faithful chums — American Jake Perry, Englishman Richard Davis Deacon, and Frenchman Jean-Claude Clairoux — are on holiday when they learn of the death of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in their attempt to ascend Mount Everest. Deacon knew Mallory personally and is most affected. But the tragedy soon reveals another dimension.

Also dead on the faraway slopes is one Lord Percy Bromley, a young wastrel scion of a wealthy family. The really perplexing thing is that Bromley had no connection to the official expedition and was not even supposed to be in Tibet. To complicate matters further, Bromley’s grieving mother is not quite convinced her son is truly dead and  commissions our heroes to mount a new expedition to learn the truth. They are promised some local aid in the form of assistance from “Cousin Reggie,” resident on a Darjeeling tea plantation.

This slow buildup occupies the first half of the novel, during which Simmons efficiently and entertainingly accomplishes many things. First, he brings out the complementary natures and characters of the three men in an assortment of social settings. Although they are more than national stereotypes, the men do conform broadly to regional traditions. Perry is the eager, naïve, quick-witted American. “J.C.” is the sanguine, dapper, emotional Frenchman. And “the Deacon” is a conundrum:  an Englishman bearing silently the wounds of the Great War, hiding a poetic soul in a cloak of competence.

Meanwhile, we witness thrilling, albeit low-key alpine incidents that illuminate their various skills and competencies in several practice climbs. Here we begin to encounter the immense physicality of mountaineering:

Climbing up the mountain, the climber is leaning into the rock face, body intimately spread out against the rock, cheek touching rock, fingers groping for any ledge or handhold in the rock, the climber’s entire body seeking out even the smallest ledges, fissures, wedges, overhangs, slabs — it’s like making love to the mountain.

On other fronts, Simmons nicely evokes the wide-open nature of the era, when great and challenging expeditions to mysterious corners of the globe still loomed as headline-grabbing possibilities. He sets up a potential villain for our heroes: Nazi mountaineer Bruno Sigl, the only witness, at some remove, to the alleged avalanche death of Percy Bromley and another mysterious German, Kurt Meyer. And of course he drops in some subtle references to the yeti, a mythical beast that the title  — which, it turns out, has more than one meaning — prepares us to expect.

A fair number of these pages are devoted to what might be dubbed “gear porn.” In a rather proto-science-fictional, even steampunkish manner, the various technologies, newfangled and old, connected with mountain climbing are lovingly catalogued and explicated, in the style of weaponsmaster Q offering James Bond the latest spy gadgets. (Simmons, happily, is too expert to fall into the trap of “I suffered for my research and now the reader will too.”) This spy-like riff, along with the Nazi theme, brings to mind our old friend Indiana Jones in his first outing. While not a professional adventurer, the Deacon shares some of Indiana’s fictional genetics, and envisioning this book on the big screen as helmed by Spielberg & Lucas becomes irresistible.

When our trio arrives at Darjeeling, more surprises await. Cousin Reggie proves to be Lady Katherine Christina Regina Bromley-Montfort, an ultra-capable and alluring widowed Amazon with definite ideas about the expedition, and some suspicions about Percy’s death. With Reggie taking charge, along with her native right-hand man, Dr. Pasang, the ascent of Everest will prove most stimulating — especially since it turns into a life-or-death struggle, not just with the elements and terrain but with opponents determined to keep hidden the details surrounding the death of Percy Bromley.

It is only at the end of a massive cat-and-mouse game across the unforgiving slopes of Everest that the fantastical elements of the tale fully emerge, performing their essential role. And then, in a satisfyingly retro move, a longish coda and epilogue explicate the fallout of the expedition and bring the tale right back to Jake Perry in his nursing home, circa 1991.

What Simmons’s book is ultimately all about — besides its corker of a tale about the battle between good and evil, humanism and barbarism, a contest that summons up thoughts of Kipling and London and Stevenson, as well as their homage-paying descendant, Philip José Farmer — is the sheer intractable majesty and beauty and unforgiving physics of mountain climbing, especially in opposition to the frailness of the human body. The book is full to brimming with a variety of suspenseful set pieces in which the mountain poses challenges and the humans must respond, or die. Simmons — via the easygoing but perceptive voice of Jake Perry — conjures up graphic and vivid mental movies so that the reader feels present through every frostbitten moment.

Here is Perry, down a crevasse, trying to deal with the gelatinous corpse of a crushed and battered enemy.

My movement and slight shifting of position, or perhaps some settling in the glacier itself, jogged the body slightly so that in mere seconds the man’s boots folded up over his shoulders and he slipped and slid and squeezed down through a gap less than a foot wide, his body with its snapped spine and collapsed ribs folding like some obscene accordion.

Then he was gone, and for a terrible few seconds the toe points of my crampons slipped out of the opposing wall — the body must have grazed me when it fell away, but it felt more like the dead man had gripped my ankles and tried to pull me down with him.

Of such creepy and exalting carnal frissons is The Abominable cunningly composed. But Simmons does not neglect the soul or the spirit of his actors; he leaves the reader with the sense that only a thin membrane separates Himalayan heights from a more numinous heaven.