Captain Crozier comes up on deck to find his ship under attack by celestial ghosts. Above him - above Terror - shimmering folds of light lunge but then quickly withdraw like the colourful arms of aggressive but ultimately uncertain spectres. Ectoplasmic skeletal fingers extend toward the ship, open, prepare to grasp, and pull back.This opening passage serves to illustrate the many horrors that await the crew of the ill-fated 1847 expedition to the Canadian Arctic in search of the fabled Northwest Passage (ironic that in this very year of publication, the Arctic has warmed enough to make this dream of a shipping lane across the northern bounds of the hemispheres into a reality fraught with future international treaty disputes). From the image of the "celestial ghosts" flitting about in the skies above to the very real dangers of -50ºF temperatures to the ever-present night, Simmons puts these images into very palpable forms here and throughout the novel. Captain Crozier over the course of months witnesses how these elements, combined with another, nameless terror on the ice pack which has been stalking his sailors as prey, have doomed the Franklin Expedition to a very nasty and frozen death.
The temperature is -50 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast. Because of the fog that came through earlier, during the single hour of weak twilight now passing for their day, the foreshortened masts - the three topmasts, topgallants, upper rigging, and the highest spars have been removed and stored to cut down on the danger of falling ice and to reduce the chances of the ship capsizing because of the weight of ice on them - stand now like rudely pruned and topless trees reflecting the aurora that dances from one dimly seen horizon to the other. As Crozier watches, the jagged ice fields around the ship turn blue, then bleed violet, then glow as green as the hills of his childhood in northern Ireland. Almost a mile off the starboard bow, the gigantic floating ice mountain that hides Terror's sister ship, Erebus, from view seems for a brief, false moment to radiate colour from within, glowing from its own cold, internal fires.
I am writing this passage in the minutes before dawn here. The wind is blowing, howling really, outside. Although the temperature will not drop below 40ºF today, the wind's whistling by my upstairs window makes for a fitting accompaniment to this passage. I felt cold when I first read this book back in late February and even now as I skim through its pages again, that sense of a stalking, freezing terror momentarily overcomes me. It is a testament to Simmons's descriptive writing as well as to my now-foreknowledge of what awaits at the end that makes this novel an easy choice for my Best of 2007 Countdown.