In May of 1845, two ships, The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus left Greenhithe, England under the command of Sir John Franklin. Their mission was to discover the Northwest Passage. Both ships disappeared without a trace somewhere in the Arctic. All 130 souls were lost.
About a decade later, explorers following leads given to them by the local Inuit people discovered the remains of the ships’ crew members on King William Island. An investigation revealed a terrifying story: Both ships had become stuck in arctic ice. The men abandoned them and struck out on a journey to the south. Starvation, sickness, and exposure winnowed their numbers down. In their desperation, they resorted to cannibalism, but it was not enough to save them. Two years ago, the wreck of the Erebus was found at the bottom of Terror Bay. Its sister ship was discovered just a couple of days ago, also in the bay.
The Franklin Expedition offers a harsh lesson about ambition, as Edwin Landseer’s horrifying 1864 painting Man Proposes, God Disposes suggests. Give it a good look: The polar bear on the right is consuming a human ribcage. Maybe you shouldn’t tempt fate by taking ships named Terror and Erebus (Greek deity of darkness and chaos) on your arctic expedition.
Exposure, starvation, cannibalism: The utter darkness of the Franklin Expedition still evokes a sense of primordial dread, and one of the ways that we deal with that is by telling stories. Here are several fictional takes on the Franklin Expedition.
The Adventures of Captain Hatteras
by Jules Verne
In this fictionalized take on the Franklin Expedition, Captain John Hatteras charts a course to the North Pole. Like the men of the real expedition, Hatteras’ crew ends up wintering on an island after their ship is destroyed. Entirely unlike the real expedition — or the real Arctic — the ice dissolves when spring arrives. Hatteras and what’s left of his crew make their way to the North Pole, and what they discover drives the captain to insanity. Cheerful, huh? It’s rather hard to find in print, but you can Captain Hatteras in public domain ebook from at Project Gutenberg.
by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler
Arctic Drift is one of Cussler’s very popular Dirk Pitt novels. In this installment, US and Canada are at odds due to climate change-related economic chaos. In the shadow of a looming war, Pitt and friends travel to the Arctic in search of a 19th century shipwreck (ahem) that could hold the solution to climate change.
by Dan Simmons
Simmons’ The Terror is considered the definitive horror treatment of the Franklin Expedition. In The Terror, the doomed crew is stalked by a mysterious killer. A mysterious Inuit woman might be able to help them, but they’ll have to get her to break her silence first. The book was recently picked up for a television adaptation by AMC.