Reaching for the Void – The Abominable by Dan Simmons

In the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, abominable is defined as:

Exciting disgust, offensive; odious

Its derivation could be seen as ‘a human, signifying “inhuman”’, from the Latin ab plus human. It seems appropriate for a book that approaches the notion of Weird from a very human angle.

Dan Simmons’ The Abominable explores how the search for the uncanny, the push towards the extreme, might make us either human or monsters. This novel moves from between being metaphysical to entirely physical wrapped in unreliable frame story, presented in another unreliable frame story. Using a reported diary from one of the participants, the novel becomes limited to the report of one participant of the climb. It might position this book in the same way that Henry James does with the unreliability of the narrator in the Turn of the Screw: using the technique to put the book in the cusp of traditions whilst also making the reader uncertain of anything being true.

It moves from a nineteenth century style of terror, one that uses landscape as an integral technique; is in awe of the sense of place, to a twentieth century terror that is more afraid of the human. The influence of Romanticism, the heightened emotions created by the landscape around the actors, gives way to the heightened emotions caused by the human. Using the early twentieth century Western exploration of Everest as the backdrop, Simmons moves from physical extremes to geographical ones. Everest was the final conquests and there were questions whether it had been climbed by Mallory. Richard Deacon finds funds from the Bromley family to discover the fate of their son, or retrieve his body. Having already chosen his climbing companions, the Deacon, travels around the UK and Europe to discover the variations on the tale.

At the same time, he uses the rise of Fascism and the claim that Hitler took gay, sometimes under age, lovers to create  very human tale of horror. Using the insinuations, the Great Game is brought to the Himalaya, the political safety valve is brought to the literary one. The climb becomes a pre-cursor of the conflict to come. The idealists become the monsters whereas it is only those on the edge of the system who are able to subvert it.

Underneath all is the conspiracy. The Great Game was, in part, an expression of a cold war in to which unwitting participants are drawn. Our narrator is deeply unimpressed about being caught up in the spy business. In this respect, I found myself reminded of Tim Power’s Declare, where Ararat becomes the locus of the action and the Cold War is made real. The Abominable declares the intelligence war but then does not deliver on it. It does something similar with the question of Orientalism and the fizzing resentment of the colonial rule but it is not really resolved. We are asked to understand the resentment and view the way that some colonists involved themselves in the culture to be part of it but not to conquer it, as an escape from their own lives and cultures, but the issue is a little sidetracked.

Although he draws in the mysteries of the mountain, the Yeti and the questions regarding Mallory’s success and location of his body, Simmons wisely tries not to answer them. Although he hints at an alternative history, Simmons seems more interested in the journey, the climbing towards the unknown or the uncanny. Those who force the answer are doomed to fail. Although he moves into the twentieth century tale of terror and explores the variations, he seems to come back to the idea that terror is a shifting target, ever changing and somehow unclimbed. Touching the idea of the abominable, he seems content with the concept that whatever excites disgust or is offensive is an ever shifting target. In this case, The Abominable is akin to the location of Mallory’s body: we can see it but are never sure whether it reached the summit or not.

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