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Book Review: The Terror

Have you ever wanted to have scurvy? If so, go read The Terror and cross scurvy off the list of diseases you’ve been dreaming about test-driving.

Holy crap. I don’t read much horror anymore. Back in high school when I loved to think of myself as dark and tormented, I read nothing but lurid tales of great bleakness, but thankfully that phase passed.

Its a loooooong way home...

It's a loooooong way home...

But then Dan Simmons, one of my favorite authors, wrote a big fat scary book that I had to try out. And as it happens, it was the scariest book I think I’ve ever read.

When The Terror begins, an arctic exploration crew aboard the H.M.S. Terror has already been trapped in the ice for two years. This is the era of Shackleton’s Endurance voyage. People were apparently nuts for the arctic. But as rough as Shackleton’s voyage was, the crew of The Terror are in for a bad time. They are running out of food, and several of the men are running out of sanity. (The malevolent lunatic dwarf in this book is worth the price alone.)

Worse, something out on the ice keeps clawing up the sides of the steel ship and snatching the men. A weird eskimo-esque woman wanders in out of nowhere, and all hell begins to break loose.

I find very few books indescribable. Blood Meridian might be the only legitimately indescribable book out there, but The Terror definitely has its own weird, icy charm. You feel cold. You feel scared. This is a book that understands Dread. You’ll thank your lucky stars that you haven’t been trapped in the arctic for two years with nothing but the Northern Lights to see by.

There is a set-piece about halfway through that I will never forget. It involves a masquerade ball, a working knowledge of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, and a lot of fire.

This is a masterful book. Good or bad, on every single page, you are feeling exactly what Simmons wants you to be feeling. More than horror, more than a thriller, more than any review can do justice to, The Terror is one of the most memorable books I have read in some time.



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  • Ben Owens April 13, 2009, 3:21 am

    You sold me. I’m picking up a copy tomorrow. Great review.

  • Josh Hanagarne April 13, 2009, 4:00 am

    Good! You won’t be sorry. And if you like this, read “At the Mountains of Madness” by HP Lovecraft. Lots of snow, ice, tentacles, etc.

  • Blaine Moore April 13, 2009, 6:59 pm

    So what you are saying is that this isn’t the best book to put by your bedside and read as you are falling asleep every night?

    Haven’t heard of it before; I’ll have to pick up a copy at some point when I have some time for leisure reading. (Right now I’m on a running or business book kick…)

  • Josh Hanagarne April 13, 2009, 7:13 pm

    That’s exactly what I mean. It’s hard to describe. Most books that are scary are just gory. Most books that are “suspenseful” are just books with a twist that you can telegraph a mile away. If I could describe The Terror better, I could probably forget about it, because then it would be just like everything else.

    On the business book front, I just finished The No Asshole Rule. It seemed like a theory that could have been a pamphlet rather than a book, but it all ran true!

  • Megan Horton April 14, 2009, 3:08 am

    I’ve read it, and I agree, it’s very scary and it does an excellent job of conveying the bleakness of being out in the arctic. I liked it alot. Very scary.

  • Josh Hanagarne April 14, 2009, 3:09 am

    Megan, do you think you’ll ever do an Arctic exploration voyage? Maybe it’s much nicer now and the monsters have all been tamed.

  • Vanessa Vezina July 3, 2009, 8:40 pm

    Perfect! Sold!
    I have a stack 5 high of let-down lame-O horror books, finally something to keep me up at night 😀 score

    • Josh Hanagarne July 3, 2009, 8:46 pm

      Great. I would love to hear what you think of it. I’m reading a book called Threshold right now that you might like. It’s not quite horror, but it’s close. Weird. Author is Kiernan Caitlin. She’s done a ton of stuff and I had never, ever heard of her until a couple of weeks ago. Also reading The Black Clock and Blood Meridian (again again again). BM is the most horrific book I’ve ever read, but it can be pretty slow going.

  • Dan Cosgrove March 5, 2010, 11:39 am

    I’m probably the first guy anyone knows that complains when it gets cold, and I loves me the horror stories, so I went ahead and got the library to put this one on hold.

    Thanks for the head’s up!