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Newly Found HMS Terror Could Provide Clues To Fateful 1848 Shipwreck


And now the story of a mysterious shipwreck and the recent discovery that may provide some answers. This is a shipwreck that happened a long time ago - in 1848, to be exact. That's when the HMS Terror and its sister vessel, the Erebus, got stuck in some ice while trying to get through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean. The crews abandoned the ships, but more than a hundred men under the command of Captain John Franklin were never seen again. This past week, researchers uncovered the wreckage of the HMS Terror, which could provide clues about what happened on that fateful journey.

Writer Dan Simmons has his own notions, and he wrote a best-selling book about it called "The Terror." In it, Captain Franklin and his crew are plagued by starvation, scurvy and some sort of Arctic monster. Dan Simmons joins us now from KGNU in Boulder, Colo. Hi, Dan. Welcome to the show.

DAN SIMMONS: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, what do you make of this discovery? This is a big deal, huh?

SIMMONS: I think it's a big deal. I think a lot of people do because this was the great mystery of the 19th century, certainly for the British. They kept hunting for that - those lost ships for the rest of the century right up to the 20th century.

MARTIN: Remind us some of the details of Franklin's expedition. The pursuit of the Northwest Passage was kind of akin to scaling Mount Everest at the time, right?

SIMMONS: It was. And they were sure that they would succeed with the HMS Erebus and Terror. They were wonderful ships. The Terror actually was a gunship back - earlier in the War of 1812. It gave us the national anthem, essentially, 'cause it was the one launching those rockets and bombs bursting in air. But they were good ships. They were reinforced by iron. They had steam propulsion, locomotive engines on the Terror. And they knew the problems of being frozen in the ice. Almost all the sailors who were experienced had gone on previous polar expeditions and been frozen two, three years in the ice, and it was no big deal. Sooner or later, you got out - but not this time.

MARTIN: What about this saga inspired you to sort of imagine what might have happened to these men?

SIMMONS: To be honest, I wanted to write a book about Antarctica. That's fascinated me since I was a kid. But as much as I love the heroic era of exploration, I just couldn't find the elements necessary for an Antarctic sort of scary book like this. And then I found a footnote about the Franklin expedition, and it just fascinated me - 128 men disappearing, the clues of occasional bones and so forth that were found of the crew. Everything about it was open-ended to write a novel, so I did.

MARTIN: Two years ago, the wreck of the Erebus was discovered in the same area. So does this bring some kind of closure to this story, do you think?

SIMMONS: In a way, it doesn't. It opens up more mysteries and more questions.

MARTIN: Ah, the answer of a writer.


MARTIN: Always good - looking for a good yarn.

SIMMONS: Well, I wrote my yarn about it, but I was right in one thing because I guessed that some of the crew that had left with Francis Crozier, the captain who was in charge in the years after John Franklin died - and his death was mysterious - Crozier took his men sledging around King William Island hundreds of miles. And it was just terrible hardship. But I guessed that some of the men voted to return to the ship because the ship had a lot of canned goods. And, of course, it was a very dangerous wager on their part because everybody on the expedition assumed the ships had been broken up by the ice. But we know now that both ships sailed south. And we don't know quite the details of who manned them, what they were trying to do down there. So lots of questions.

MARTIN: Is there anything in particular that you really want to find out from this boat?

SIMMONS: Yeah, there is, actually. Besides all of the things you discover when you dive deep to a wreck - and this is beautifully preserved, they said. But I based some of my work on the Inuit legends, and my favorite one was about some men who went aboard the boat years after it was abandoned. And they went aboard, and according to their stories they found bodies in the bunks downstairs. And one of them especially, according to the Inuit, was a man whose hair had grown wildly long, has covered his face. You just see his eyes. And he had - he was smiling terribly because he had the teeth of a giant rodent. So I'll be interested to see if we can find that.


MARTIN: Sounds a little creepy. Dan Simmons is the author of "The Terror." Thank you so much for talking with us.

SIMMONS: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.