For me to find a book scary, I have to be in a frame of mind to feel scared. That’s the conclusion I came to, after finishing Michelle Paver’s arctic ghost story, Dark Matter. I could see that objectively, this was a spooky story, but reading it in a warm and well-lit house, with my menfolk watching Mock the Week in the next room amid gales of studio audience laughter, I was not unduly moved. I’m sure it would have been a different story (quite literally) had I been alone.
The story is narrated in the form of a journal written by Jack Miller, who joins a 1937 expedition to the Arctic Circle as a wireless engineer. Jack’s family has fallen on hard times, destroying his chances of a research career in physics, and out of dire need he is working in a soulless desk job for a pittance. When he first meets the other members of the party, four Oxbridge educated young men, his chip on his shoulder nearly prevents him from taking up the proffered job. But the dream of adventure and a brand new start in the emptiness of the Arctic wastes are too important to be abandoned for pride. Stifling his bitterness, he is soon on board a ship bound for Spitsbergen, north of Norway, and thence to their chosen location for a camp, Gruhuken. But already there are warning signs that the expedition is jinxed. It is only with the greatest reluctance that their hired skipper, the trusty and experienced Eriksson, will take them to Gruhuken, and they are shedding members through a series of misfortunes. By the time they finally set up camp they are reduced to three men.
Reading this book is like watching a balance slowly tip from one side to the other. When they arrive in the Arctic there is endless day, but by the climax of the narrative, it is endless night. The wretched resentment Jack feels towards his companions will have transformed into fierce love and loyalty. The optimism and the sense of ambition and expansion he experiences will have turned into horror and the fight for survival. Even the husky dogs, who at the start arouse Jack’s fear and mistrust, become his most valuable and trusted companions. Jack is transformed by what happens to him; his angry resilience, his suspicions and his steely self-pity are all eroded and in their place a softer, vulnerable, suffering Jack emerges. We watch him being broken down, by the beauty of the Arctic, by unexpected attachments and by the power of fear. And so when he is left on in own for weeks on end at their base camp, haunted not just by the desolate emptiness and silence of the landscape, but by some errant malevolent force, we are rooting for him to put his ridiculous macho determination to one side and get the hell out of there.
Michelle Paver has an effortlessly lucid and easy style and this is a very quick read. I consumed it in two bites. But she manages to pack a lot in nevertheless. It’s full of wonderful period details of the sort of equipment such an expedition would have, and the meals they would eat. It’s also a brilliant evocation of the uncanny beauty of the Arctic and the experience of extreme isolation. Most of all I felt it explored with great subtlety a certain male temperament, one forged in class inequalities, stubbornness and pride. It’s probably too slight to be one of the great books, but it is a very good ghost story, relentlessly paring away civilisation and normality, until our main protagonist is left face to face with terror. Choose your circumstances carefully when you sit down to read it.