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NPR Arts & Life

Franklin Expedition Find May Reveal 'The Horror Of The Darkness'

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

In 1845, two ships, searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, set forth into the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic - the Terror and the Erebus, under the command of a British Captain Sir John Franklin. Both disappeared without a trace - until now. This week, it was announced that one of the ships has been located. Perhaps the best book ever written about this British expedition is a novel - "The Terror" by Dan Simmons. And he joins us now from Boulder, Colorado. Welcome, Dan.

DAN SIMMONS: Thank you.

GOODWYN: Your book was an expansive bestseller, almost 800 pages about what might have happened to the Terror and the Erebus and their 129 crewmen. Let's talk about some of the theories about what might've happened.

SIMMONS: OK, which theory do you want to start with?

GOODWYN: Well, the ships became frozen in the ice and the crewmen set out on foot.

SIMMONS: Well, we know that's true. Captain Franklin - Sir John - made a huge mistake trying to force the Victoria passage with that much ice. And he kept going when they could turn back to shelter. And it got them stuck in the worst possible place. So his error of judgment doomed those men.

GOODWYN: What other theories are there?

SIMMONS: The big one was that they died of lead poisoning due to the canning of the canned tin goods. The problem with that - these guys hadn't eaten any tin food. It was only three months into their voyage.

GOODWYN: It was a dire situation anyway you look at it. But, of course, in your book, it wasn't dire enough. You throw in an Arctic beast.

SIMMONS: I do, an unexplained Arctic beast that we never see. And the reason for that is I wanted something to personify just the terror, the horror of the darkness, the five months of darkness, the terrible cold - 100 degrees below zero - the constricting ice that you had to listen to against the hull, you know, all the time.

GOODWYN: What would be the best-case scenario for you if they find which ship it is? What would you like to know?

SIMMONS: Well, I'll be a little silly here. I'd like to see giant claw marks and tooth marks on the hull so my novel is justified. I don't know how the ship got there. Since we know from the only - one of the only two notes left - that all of the survivors that abandoned ship and were sledging down toward Canada - so who was sailing the ship? And it didn't have any masts. They store the masts below decks in sails in the winter so that tons of ice don't fall on men working on the deck. How can a few men go back and put up those masts? It's impossible.

GOODWYN: Dan Simmons is the author of "The Terror," a fictionalized account of the 1845 Franklin Arctic expedition. Thanks so much.

SIMMONS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.