Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, November 4, 2013

2013: The Abominable (Simmons, Dan)

Authentic and innately fearsome, yet monotonous (3/5)

Read Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990) in 2008 during my second full years of reading science fiction—loved it. Read The Terror (2007) in 2010—loved it. Read Summer of Night (1991) later in 2012—thought is OK even though I’m from a small Illinois town myself. While not a flawless author, Simmons certainly infuses some of the most chilling scenes in his novels. The Terror remains one of my favorite novels about isolation, struggle, predation, and death. The most captivating thing about The Abominable is the similarity of the four themes: isolation, struggle, predation, and death.

Inside flap synopsis:
It's 1924 and the race to summit the world's highest mountain has been brought to a terrified pause by the shocking disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine high on the shoulder of Mount Everest. By the following year, three climbers—a British poet and veteran of the Great War, a young French mountain guide, and an idealistic young American—find a way to take their shot at the top. They arrange funding from the grieving Lady Bromley, whose son also disappeared on Everest in 1924. Young Bromley must be dead, but his mother refuses to believe it and pays the trio to bring him home. 

Deep in Tibet and high on Everest, the three climbers—joined by the missing boy's female cousin—find themselves being pursued through the night by someone, or something in a nightmare that becomes a matter of life and death at 28,000 feet. What is chasing them? And what is the truth behind the 1924 disappearances on Everest? As they fight their way to the top of the world, the friends uncover a secret far more abominable than any mythical creature could ever be.”


After the failed Everest attempts of 1922 and 1924 and the resulting tragic deaths of George Mallory and Andre Irvine, three Alpine climbers concoct a scheme to have their own attempt at the yet-to-scaled peak of the world. Also killed on the notorious Himalayan mountain was “thirty-two-year old Lord Percival Bromley, brother  of the fifth Marquess of Lexter, and a German or Austrian climber … identified as Kurt Meyer”, both having died from “being swept away by an avalanche” (37). Due to his secret wealth and social stature, British Great War (WWI) veteran and renowned climber commonly known as “the Deacon” (Richard Davis Deacon) sets up a meeting with Percival’s (Percy) grieving mother at her luxurious English countryside manor. Under the guise of recovering the body of young Percy (or returning his living form, as his mother insists), the trio of mountaineers secure enough funds to achieve their ill-thought-out dream—to scale Everest.

Near of the end of 1924, England is having continually frosty relations with war-stricken Germany and difficult relationships with the country of Tibet, too. Nepal has never been open to foreigners and the Indian province of Sikkim is sympathetic and antagonistic about the English debacle with Tibet. England is unlikely to have another official attempt at the peak in the near future as the only viable route passes through Sikkim. However, the plans that the trio have are for their “very unofficial and almost unreported Deacon-Clairoux-Perry Himalayan Expedition of 1925” (47). Their German climbing colleagues, a tense brotherhood infused with hate for each other’s nationalism and respect for the profession, offer clues to the whereabouts of Percy. Their words are naturally distrusted, but Bruno Sigl were the only living eyes to see him from a distance—a black dot descending a slope. The atmosphere of mistrust is exasperated by the eerie hero worship of Herr Hitler in the Munich beer hall Bürgerbräukeller.

Relatively ignoring the German advice but adopting the German climbing techniques, the trio of mountaineers make way for India. To facilitate the tetchy tyrant in Sikkim and monitor the funds of the expedition, Lady Bromley insists on attaching Percy’s cousin, Reggie, to the trip; however, this cousin must be met at the Bromley family’s tea plantation in Darjeeling, India. Free money rarely comes unattached with agendas or prerogatives. Cousin Reggie, as it turns out, is a beautiful woman with serious experience in mountain climbing, including an admirable effort in scaling Everest itself. With her expertise, she gathers sherpas and equipment, where the three-man team suddenly blooms to a five-man crowd surrounded by porters. Miffed to say the least, the Deacon eventually accepts the situation because without Reggie, this expedition to 29,000 feet would never have left the docks on sea level.

Along with the Deacon are two fellow climbers trained in the art of Alpine ascent: (a) Jacob Perry, a young Harvard university graduate who has climbed in Alaska, the Rockies, and especially the Alps where he is exceedingly skilled at traversing rock faces which have a high degree of difficulty; (b) Jean-Claude (nicknamed J.C.) Clairoux is an inventive climber who is becoming intrigued by the inventiveness of German climbers using rigid steel equipment for pinions and crampons. As the Deacon has ascended Everest with the now deceased Mallory on two separate occasions, he is well aware of the dangers from its base of 17,000 feet up to its treacherous First and Second Steps at 28,000 feet.

More mysterious than the icy secrets and hidden dangers of Everest are the motives of Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer. They weren’t part of the official 1924 expedition and interviewers have said that they trailed behind seemingly traveling alone without any support. Could he be living up to his reputation as a “wastrel, a disappointment to his family, a discredit to his country during the War … a debauched playboy … a deviant” (479) or could he be tracking the mythical yeti, a “one of the many demons who the locals [of the Himalayas] believe live in or on the mountain … a real, living, breathing, blood-eating man-thing” (160). To Perry and J.C., the actual motives of young Percy are beyond their grasp of reality when both the Deacon and Reggie fill them in on the truth.

Elated to have the opportunity to climb the famous yet infamous mountain, Perry may be young and eager, but he is also professionally hesitant: “I’m not afraid of trying to climb Mount Everest, but I’m almost frightened to be in the presence of those men who’ve become world famous by attempting and failing to do so” (91). This fear of tarnished legacy strikes him quickly as he’s one of the first to suffer altitude sickness (or “mountain lassitude”), a result of his prior illness when passing through the steamy jungles of Sikkim. His rasping cough progresses from the sensation of a chicken bone being caught, to steel burrs scraping, to razor blades slicing down his throat. Meanwhile, the five mountaineers (the Deacon, Perry, J.C., Reggie, and her doctor-friend Pasang ascend the mountain, establish camps I, II, III, IV, V, and VI but they also must descend to acclimatize and carry good from camp to camp.

This acclimatization only helps the climbers to a point, but the more time they spend around the Yellow Band of Everest (at 28,000 feet), the more brain cells they kill and the more sluggish they react—a combination with the cold which is fatal without companions or diligence. Still, all the common symptoms of “mountain lassitude” manifest themselves, obviously or unknowingly, in all members of the party:

[O]ur hearts were swollen, our muscles were failing, our kidneys, stomachs, and other internal organs were not doing their jobs properly, our blood was too thick and ready to spawn embolisms, our red blood cells were doing without the oxygen they needed, and our brains were oxygen starved … We were metaphorical inches from hypothermia. (557)

Even with the sickness, the ache, and hardships, and the atmospheric torture, Perry still reflects, “But for that moment, we were very happy” (557). Including his accomplishments on Everest, Perry again reflects, even if he lived another seventy years “this would be the climbing effort I would be most proud of” (587). Situated at Camp V for the night, their atypical ascent of Everest is shattered not by the percussion of wind gusts, but by the solitary scream approaching their tent. Later, they would approach Base Camp and see dismembered torsos with their limbs scattered about, all surrounded by pools of blood. Who or what had committed this travesty upon the humble sherpas at Base Camp? Due to these circumstances and truths yet unveiled, the search for Percy’s body now becomes a necessity rather than a detour.


As much as my and the book’s synopses both emphasize Perry’s expedition on Everest, sadly, the reality of The Abominable is stifled by Simmons’ obsession with climbing gear and types of terrain—the mountaineering lingo is absurdly unabashed, like the gratuitous three-page spew on pages 205-207. It’s not that I’m ignorant, I just get sick of reading about hammers (31 times), traversing (45 times), crampons (75 times), ropes (86 times), and camps (102 times)… then there are the cwms (8 times), moraine rocks (24 times), crevasses (56 times), summits (132 times), and ridges (132 times) atop of the continual climbing on ice, rock, and snow. The monotony doesn’t seem to affect Perry but it certainly begins to feel blasé after 500 pages. Thankfully, Simmons is equally as diligent with his plot as he is with his climbing—Perry’s pain comes through the pages.

While the mystery of young Percy’s disappearance on the mountain is metaphorically buried under an avalanche of mountaineering (pun intended to reinforce the annoying topic), there remains a niggling persistence of fear from the perilous mountain and the continual exposure to the sherpas’ fear of the yeti. As they climb cliffs, you can sense the yeti looking down upon them; when they wind their through pinnacles, you can feel the yeti around every corner; when they scale a chimney, you can see death rain from above. For the first 444 pages (including Parts I [The Climbers] & II [The Mountain]), the fear is nebulous, but with the onset of Part III (The Abominable) the fear penetrates, becomes subdermal. Finally, the fear strikes the blood, racing to the heart shortly into Part III.

As monotonous as the scenery is and as persistence as the climbing lingo is, all of this pales in comparison to one huge speed bump early on in the book where Simmons allows himself to digress from mountaineering in order to describe the “9,000-acre estate beyond Stamford” (59) simply called the Bromley House. This lengthy and utterly irrelevant dalliance of Simmons’ extends for eleven pages. It reads like Simmons did his homework on some wondrous manor in England and just simply had to include everything into the book which he did research on. I’ve done a master’s thesis, I know the pain of doing peripheral research for a few weeks only, in the end, to leave the data unused. Allow yourself to digress from the central focus and you might as well append the dictionary, the Bible, and an issue of Playboy to the appendix.

Further qualms with Simmons’ writing lays with two repetitive phrases, one issued from the speakers and one issued from Simmons’ own writing style. The first is the repetition of the non-native speakers asking, “How do you say?” or “What’s the word?”—gaps in the conversation which feel jerky. In reality, this happens quite often but I very much doubt that the narrator, Perry, would remember such petty details when writing about his Himalayan expedition. These would have been better left deleted. The last annoyance is one I can’t quite get over and which I can’t quite describe my hatred for it, but I hate the adverbial phrase “all but”… which he used about 24 times.


The Abominable wasn’t as good or as trialing as The Terror, but it still provided a creepy haunting, an innate fear of shadows and myth. When this finally manifested, it lacked punch; the fear dissolved into irksomeness. I’m glad Simmons had the chance to follow his mountaineering fancy and indulge himself in the terminology associated with his passion; while this makes the narrative authentic, it doesn’t make the story very engaging to the reader. There were just too many dalliances by Simmons’ own whim to make it a focused, engaging read while, at the same time, being creepy and terror-striking—as a reader, I felt disassociated.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Thank you. The technical jargon was a tough slog to read through.