|WRITING fiction isn't an activity for the faint-hearted, and anyone who has managed, as Dan Simmons has, to generate two dozen books (in an impressive variety of genres) in just 22 years clearly deserves credit for discipline, diligence, resolve and, most of all, confidence. His will to persevere - to see every story, short or dauntingly long, through to the bitter end - has been regularly fortified by the recognition of his peers: his résumé includes a Hugo award (from the World Science Fiction Society), four Bram Stoker awards (from the Horror Writers Association) and a couple of World Fantasy awards. His latest opus, however, raises the disturbing possibility that this energetic writer's hard-earned self-assurance may be tipping over into something more like hubris. "The Terror" is a 769-page novel about men stuck in the ice. Maybe that's a tad reductive. This book needs all the reducing it can get, but in the interest of fairness I should say that "The Terror" could also be described as a large, ambitious historical novel about one of the most famous disasters of the 19th century: the doomed polar expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which set out from England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage - the long-dreamed-of Arctic shipping lane connecting the earth's two great oceans - and never returned. Franklin's expedition was neither the first nor the last attempt to navigate the stubbornly uncooperative northern waters, but it was the most spectacularly and tragically unsuccessful: two state-of-the-art Royal Navy ships, the Erebus and the Terror, were lost, and all aboard them died, in what bleak, freezing misery we can only dimly imagine. Although Simmons, as a professional purveyor of horror and fantasy, is no dim imaginer, he has his work cut out for him. What actually happened to the officers and crew of the Erebus and the Terror is simply, awfully, that the ships reached a point at which they could not move in the polar ice, despite the powerful steam engines and retractable screw propellers that everyone believed would enable them to bust through - to prevail over adversity by means of technology, determination and brute force, as the British Navy was accustomed to do. Recent research suggests that Franklin's men were also debilitated by disease: there's good evidence that their food, improperly canned by an unscrupulous independent contractor, was riddled with toxins. The history of the Franklin expedition is, at its core, a tale of stasis and slow death in a stark, nearly featureless landscape. Which doesn't mean it's unfit material for literature or, at least, reasonably creepy entertainment. An immobilized ship can be a potent metaphor for certain states of existential unease, as it is in Conrad's novella "The Shadow-Line" (114 pages in the Everyman's Library edition) or Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (625 lines). And the polar regions, frigid as death itself, have always provided an exceptionally hospitable environment for horror: Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein"), Edgar Allan Poe ("The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket"), H. P. Lovecraft ("At the Mountains of Madness") and John W. Campbell ("Who Goes There?") have all dreamed dire happenings at one pole or the other, at much more modest length. ("The Terror" is dedicated, with "many thanks for the indelible Arctic memories," to 12 members of the cast and crew of the classic 1951 movie based on Campbell's story: "The Thing From Another World.") But of the many possible approaches to making artistic sense of the Franklin fiasco, just about the least promising, I'd say, would be to turn it into an epic-length ripping yarn. That's the course Simmons sets out on, though, and stays on, for hundreds and hundreds of pages and hundreds of thousands of words, in the apparent conviction that everything impeding him will ultimately, inevitably yield to his craftsmanship and his steely will. He dutifully dramatizes the sad facts of the disaster, enlarging a bit on the contrast between Franklin (distinguished, morally upright, incompetent) and the Terror's captain, Francis Crozier (Irish, hard-drinking, able). To the known history - which, as Scott Cookman's 2000 nonfiction account, "Ice Blink," demonstrates, can be narrated fully and vividly in fewer than 250 pages - he adds his own inventions and speculations: a mutiny; a mysterious, tongueless Inuit woman; and a scary monster in the form of a gigantic polar-bear-like creature with a glacier-size chip on its shoulder. Simmons works like a malamute to create a mythic aura for this implacable, murderous beast: the epigraph comes from "Moby-Dick"; Crozier makes frequent reference to "Leviathan" in his addresses to the crew; and in the final chapters the novel lays on a late, desperate surge of Inuit folklore in an attempt to magnify the significance of the long, grim voyage that the men of the Erebus and the Terror (and the readers of this book) have so agonizingly endured. But by the time the huge white thing has been rebranded as the embodiment of an ancient evil, most readers, I'd guess, will be well past caring. When a novel goes north of, say, 600 pages, we naturally become impatient, demanding, potentially mutinous, and the questions we ask of the writer can turn testy: Where are we going and why, and will the whole grueling experience be worth it? Or are we just stuck in something we can't seem to get out of? THAT persistence alone isn't enough to transform a bad idea into a good one is probably the chief lesson of the Franklin expedition in particular and the quest for the Northwest Passage in general. The passage, in fact, resisted discovery until 1906; the construction of the Panama Canal soon rendered it unnecessary. The attempt to produce a massive historical novel - one that might achieve the commercial glory of, for example, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" or "The Crimson Petal and the White" - isn't, of course, a folly on that level. The quest for the Big Book is neither as heroic an endeavor nor, fortunately, as lethal. ("The Terror" won't kill you unless it falls on your head.) But when a writer as canny as Dan Simmons can talk himself into something as foolhardy as "The Terror," you know there's a kind of insanity loose in the world of publishing, and all I really want to say in my one little page is, Stop the madness. Simmons adds a few inventions to the Franklin disaster notably a scary polar-bear-like monster. Terrence Rafferty is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.