Precursors to Terror: Seven Influences on Dan Simmons’s Arctic Gothic Novel

Dan Simmons is one of the most literate and culturally-astute writers of genre fiction, and in his 2007 novel The Terror (a supernatural recasting of the fate of the Franklin Expedition), he proves as allusive as ever. Here are seven examples that can be dug out of the ice:

1.“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
The icebound plight of The Terror parallels the dead calm plaguing the ship in Coleridge’s poem (which the crew believes to be a supernatural entrapment by an angry Spirit from the Antarctic “land of mist and snow”). Also, just as the ancient mariner’s troubles traces back to his sacrilegious slaying of an albatross, the Franklin Expedition perhaps curses itself by slaughtering polar bears as it makes its transgressive foray into the Arctic. Late in the novel, Simmons reveals that shamans have promised the God Who Walks Like a Man (i.e. the Tuunbaq, who has adopted/adapted the shape of the white northern bear) that “they would honour it by never fishing or hunting within its kingdom without the monster-creature’s permission.”

2.Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
Shelley’s frame story (often abridged in film versions) intriguingly features an icebound ship stalled in its quest to discover the Northwest Passage. Captain Walton’s predicament reinforces the theme of Promethean overreaching, and the advice he receives from a dying Victor Frankenstein (“Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries”) applies just as readily to Sir John Franklin in Simmons’s novel.  Frankenstein‘s tale of the reckless creation of a hulking monstrosity that rebounds troublingly on the creator also aligns with the mythological backstory of the Tuunbaq that Simmons sketches towards the end of The Terror.

3.”The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)
Poe’s story is worked overtly into the plot of Simmons’s novel: crewmember Richard Aylmore, having read it in Graham’s Magazine five years earlier, uses it as the basis for the color-coded apartments he sets up during the Second Grand Venetian Carnivale. Alas, just as the ghastly embodiment of the Red Death crashes Prince Prospero’s festivities, the mauling Tuunbaq adds some dire fireworks to the New Year’s Eve celebration. Both Poe and Simmons furnish haunting reminders that ultimately there is no refuge from terror.

4.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Simmons immediately invokes Melville by employing a passage from Moby-Dick as the epigraph to The Terror: “This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors that they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark.” Moby-Dick also swims into the narrative itself, such as the scene when Sir John Franklin (a vainglorious captain bent on career redemption rather than revenge) entices the crew with the Ahab-like promise of golden reward for the killing of their adversary. Much like the captain of the Pequod, Franklin dooms his ship’s crew (save for a sole survivor) with a series of bad decisions. Surely it’s no coincidence, either, that in his death scene, Franklin suffers an injury that doubles Ahab’s unmasting by the whale: he has his legs torn off by the Tuunbaq. Side note: Simmons (perhaps unwittingly expressing an anxiety of influence) has written an essay in which at once admits to rereading Moby-Dick while writing The Terror and vociferously distances himself from Melville’s novel.

5.Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Simmons’s treacherous, renegade caulker’s mate, Cornelius Hickey, compares with the Conradian antagonist Kurtz. Just as Kurtz notoriously supported the Suppression of Savage Customs–“Exterminate all the brutes!”–Hickey orchestrates a fiendish massacre of friendly Esquimaux. Hickey also sounds echoes of Heart of Darkness in his descent into madness and presumed rise to godhood, and his “terrified” final pronouncement recalls Kurtz’s dying cry of “The horror! The horror!”

6.Nosferatu (1922)
Simmons closes his novel with a curious scene: Captain Crozier returns to The Terror, only to find it inhabited by an ostensibly dead figure with rat-like teeth and “long brown gingers and too-long yellow nails.” Both in appearance and situation, this seeming vampire suggests Count Orlok (who, after decimating the crew, forms the solitary occupant of the “death-ship”) in the influential German horror film. Simmons’s notion of a supernatural evil drawn to haunt a bad place also calls to mind Stephen King’sSalem’s Lot (whose film version offers a vampire that is a clear Nosferatu-homage).

7.The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Terror “is dedicated, with love and many thanks for the indelible Arctic memories, to Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite, Douglas Spencer, Dewey Martin, William self, George Fennerman, Dmitri Tiomkin, Charles Lederer, Christain Nyby, Howard Hawkes, and James Arness”–respectively, the cast, screenwriter, director, producer, and title character of the classic science fiction/horror film The Thing from Another World (based on John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”). “The thing on the ice” (as it is repeatedly referred to within Simmons’s novel) hails from the Spirit-World rather than another planet, yet lays a similarly nightmarish siege on the protagonists’ base of operations. (In a recent interview, Simmons offered further comment on the personal appeal of The Thing.)

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