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.