Red in Tooth and Claw

It’s out there. Just beyond the dim light of the fire. It waits for the darkness and then roars into camp to carry off yet another member of your party. It’s huge, indescribable and seemingly unstoppable. What is it? Why is it? More importantly, how do you survive? This ancient story and all the primal feelings it inspires lies at the heart of a monumental book I just finished reading: The Terror by Dan Simmons.

The facts are these: In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out with two of the most modern ships of the day, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, across the frozen Canadian Arctic to try to find the famed Northwest Passage. Other than one note and the ruined ships and bodies of the expedition that were found much later, there is no evidence for what exactly happened. The one thing that is known is that no member of the party was seen alive again.

Jumping off from these morbid but intriguing facts, Dan Simmons creates a fictional world that is both dreadful and compelling. His depiction of life aboard the ice-bound ships captures the claustrophobic conditions and the increasingly desperate attempts to avoid freezing to death. Simmons’ attention to detail is amazing, everything from the requisitioning of tinned vegetables to the wearing of cold weather slops is covered, but the real fun starts with the appearance of the thing out on the ice. It would be criminal to reveal too much about this character. Let’s just say it is large, lethal, and not something you would want to meet on a bright sunny day let alone in the continual gloom of an Arctic winter.

While reading The Terror, I couldn’t help being reminded of a beloved book from my adolescence, Grendel by John Gardner. Grendel covers some of the same ground, men vs. monster, but from a distinctly different point of view. It is a retelling of the age-old story of Beowulf but Gardner is more concerned with the motives of the creature than the dashing, and dare I say smug, Beowulf and his Norse henchmen. Not that I am biased or anything…

Whether you like your monsters malicious or sympathetic, there are plenty lurking in the stacks of the Everett Public Library.

Richard