As we enter the festive season I like to intermingle my reading with a dip into the occasional, more traditional, ghost story; think along the lines of M R James and his yearly Christmas supernatural tale.
This year I’ve not been disappointed as, in Dark Matter, Michelle Paver shows the world she knows how to craft a chilling tale indeed. Aptly subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’ I would beg to differ slightly, but not to contradict that moniker. This short, powerfully written tale of Arctic exploration in Norway pre-second world war is so much more than its title alludes.
Its told in diary format from the perspective of Jack Miller; begrudgingly poor and with something of a chip on his shoulder, he’s a young man who seeks to build upon his more worthy academic achievements and escape the drudgery of an monotonous day job by throwing his all in with a group of privileged young explorers on a trip to some of the wildest lands on earth.
Their target is Gruhuken, a land of the midnight sun. Isolated, frozen, vastly unexplored. From here they aim to set up base camp for a number of months, and carry out a series of tests and relay geographical information back via the wireless – the task of which will lay with Jack. For months however, they will be living in total darkness.
From the off our protagonist has issues. Internal conflicts, a moderate dose of melancholia and misanthropy in somewhat equal measure. He’s not a happy chap, and generally not the type who might pass modern day psychological testing required for someone about to spend a few months Arctic-side in isolation with just a few colleagues. This adds an element of the interesting to the story before we’ve even cast anchor for the savage but beautiful Norwegian tundra.
The epistolary format is highly effective in the story telling. It removes elements of doubt when quirky things start to happen, in part whilst managing a balancing act of additional reasonable doubt, and adds to building a brilliant tension at times. Paver visited several of the locations in researching her novel, and this pays off. I’ve visited Norway myself, and experienced the raw and rugged beauty there, and at times felt jealous of the book’s characters. That is before the strangeness begins to occur.
As a series of events begins to unfold Jack finds himself in a situation he might never have imagined; he’s isolated, on his own and out here in this icy wasteland. It enough to that one might start imagining things. That is if he wasn’t sure that he’d already seen things when the full contingent of explorers were here. The weight of the mission resting on his shoulders might be pressure enough, but there is something else in the harsh white night of daytime which is also beginning to grate away at his sanity.
It’s a short read, but gorgeously written and at times creepy as hell. I just hope that Ms. Paver will consider blessing us with a similar genre tale sometime in the future.