The Terror & Drood by Dan Simmons

Two books I enjoyed recently, both by Dan Simmons, are The Terror and Drood. Both are set in the 19th century, both feature elements of supernatural horror against a strongly-researched historical background and some good, convincing characterisation. Both are pretty big books, too, but more than justify their length — they’re the sort of novels you want to dwell in, just to linger in their very real-feeling worlds.

The Terror is about the Franklin expedition to find a northwest passage through the arctic, which set out in 1845 and, after last being sighted on the 26th July in Lancaster Sound, was not heard from again. The expedition consisted of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — fitting names considering the grisly end they came to, as subsequent missions to at first rescue, then simply find out what happened to the expedition, uncovered hints of cannibalism after the two ships became icebound in a vicious Arctic winter. To this already taut mix of dwindling food supplies, freezing temperatures, treacherous weather, scurvy and other diseases, not to mention the very real threat of mutiny as the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Simmons adds a supernatural element from Inuit mythology — a demonic creature out there in the frozen wastes, preying on the explorers more out of a need for vengeance than food. At times, this supernatural element can seem superfluous, considering the hell Simmons is already putting his characters through, but towards the end of the novel it becomes increasingly central.

I knew I’d like The Terror from the start. Like Alien, and (even more) like a 19th century version of Carpenter’s The Thing — both films I love for their tense, bleak, claustrophobic atmospheres — it’s about an isolated group of human beings in hostile surroundings facing a dreadful, demonic threat. Simmons conjures the harshness of the environment, the desperation of the situation, and the arrogance of the age brilliantly, thus making the supernatural element all the more believable.

Drood, on the other hand, is set in more civilised climes — the London of Charles Dickens, to be precise — though parts of it prove to be anything but civilised. Narrated by Dickens’s sometime friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins, it addresses the enigma of Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Drood (in Simmons’s Drood, not Dickens’s) is an almost supernatural figure, somewhat like the Phantom of the Opera in appearance, and, like the Phantom, he lives underground — in the catacombs, sewers and cellars beneath London, where an equally Dickensian sub-city exists. But the real focus of the book (though for the most part in a gently simmering subtext) is Wilkie Collins’s barely friendly rivalry with the effortlessly superior Dickens (it was Simmons’s description of Wilkie Collins as Salieri to Dickens’s Mozart that got me wanting to read the book).

Both novels are evidently highly researched, but whereas the wealth of solid detail in The Terror only ever made the setting and story more concrete and believable, sometimes the need to stick to the actual events of Dickens’s well-documented and necessarily complex life diffused the purity of Drood‘s central story for me (though this was perhaps because I didn’t know that much about Dickens’s life). Although, as narrator Wilkie Collins is an opium addict who has frequent encounters with perhaps hallucinated, perhaps real supernatural beings, it’s difficult to see how the book could have worked as well if it were tightly focused. Its edge-of-control messiness may well be an inseparable part of it.

I enjoyed both books a great deal — The Terror a shade more, perhaps, because its story was a little tighter, but the way Wilkie Collins’s narration surrounds you in his very real, sometimes feverish world pretty much made up for that, and, of the two, it’s Drood I feel I’m more likely to re-read, simply because of its appropriately Dickensian messiness.

Me & Horror: Proper Horror Novels At Last

The first proper horror novel I read was Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. By “proper horror novel”, I mean (a) one dealing with supernatural horror (because I’m not interested in serial killer novels, they’re just thrillers), (b) one with a modern-day setting (which isn’t to say I don’t like supernatural tales set in other eras, because I do — M R James’s Edwardian England, or Arthur Machen’s fin-de-siecle London, for instance — but really I like horror to be set in something as like the day-to-day world I know as possible) and (c) one that sets out to scare me stupid. Salem’s Lot did that in bucketfulls. (IT, the first King novel I bought when it came out, was far scarier, but the ending was a bit naff.)

The Influence by Ramsey CampbellAfter Salem’s Lot, I went to a local bookshop to find something with a British setting, and found, in the secondhand section, about half a shelf of Ramsey Campbell novels. I proceeded to devour them. (Not literally. That would have got me thrown out of the shop.) I mean, I just read one after the other. I think I got through The Nameless in about three days. Campbell is (rightly) thought of as on the more literary end of the horror scale, but some of his novels are nevertheless real page-turners. The Influence (which, alongside The House on Nazareth Hill and The Grin of the Dark makes up my three favourite Campbell novels, not to mention being three of my favourite reads of all time) is, I’d say, the best in terms of page-turning.

And from there, there was no turning back. Clive Barker (the big name in horror at the time, though I haven’t read anything by him for a while), Shirley Jackson (whose The Haunting of Hill House was the scariest book I’d ever read — and a recent re-reading has proved it still is), oodles of Weird Tales authors (Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, whose Our Lady of Darkness is the most perfect novel from the old school), Theodore Roszack’s Flicker, T E D Klein’s Dark Gods, and nowadays Thomas Ligotti. My most recent discovery is Dan Simmons — The Terror and Drood are both terrific stuff (and completely give the lie to (b) above, because both take place in a historical setting). Plus of course films like Ring, Hellraiser, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Wicker Man, Dagon… So much stuff I might have missed if I’d never started reading horror.

I don’t quite know what switched me from avoiding the stuff like the plague to suddenly reading it. It’s all too easy to get into cod psychologising about the need to confront the darker recesses of one’s mind, but actually I really do think that’s what I needed, and got from, and no doubt still get, from horror fiction. It’s still in my dreams. Giger’s Alien, and the occasional horde of zombies, make the odd nocturnal appearance, but they’re no longer nightmares as such, just dreams. Perhaps that’s what horror fiction has done for me. If so, it’s certainly good enough!

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to the World Horror Convention for a long weekend of the stuff, something I think my five-year old self who opened this series of blog posts on Me & Horror would just be aghast at. “Why seek it out?” he’d say. “I’ve had enough!”

Well, just in case, this is the book I’m taking to read while I’m there:

Watership Down