Dark Matter

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.



16 thoughts on “Dark Matter

  1. I also need to be in the right frame of mind. The very first time I watched The Exorcist, it was a sunny afternoon on a weekend. Not scary at all…now, if I watch a TV show, for example, that has a lil spooky something going on, and I’m by myself at night…well, forget about it. All creeped out here.

    Will check this book out, though – sounds interesting.

  2. Yes, it’s pretty hard to conjure a book’s emotional state if your surroundings conjure the opposite. I love stories and movies and science programs of the Arctic. I love the idea of month-long days and nights. I love the psychology of living in an environment with those types of light changes, so not in sync with our daily biological clocks, but definitely in sync with some of our mood-cycle clocks, for those sensitive to seasons and seasonal affective disorders. I would die in such a long night. But ghost stories never scare me in general. There’s a failure in suspending disbelief. Reality is what scares me. Nuclear Accidents. Disruptions of eco-systems. Pesticides in food. My whole family could be watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I normally find hilarious, and I’d be scared. It’s all relative, I suppose. And thanks so much for visiting. I responded to your comment.

  3. I think reading this book or something similar in a warm and well-lit house with the sound of laughter nearby is the perfect way to read it, because I don’t like being scared! In the right context, though, a scary book that doesn’t really scare me can be fun.

  4. Good point about being in the right frame of mind. I don’t often read scary books, and when I do I don’t tend to be scared by them. I wonder, though, if a really great ghost story would scare me even if I was surrounded by other people and noise. I’ve had the experience with other types of book where good writing just makes the rest of the world fade away…

  5. Don’t think I’ll venture into the horror genre… still remember after reading The Turn of the Screw as a youngster and feeling queasy for days. And, as much as I love films, I’ve not seen The Exorcist. But your post is most enjoyable. This might be the closest I’ll ever get to reading a ghost story.

  6. This book was on my radar for a while but then suddenly I lost interest. The only other review I read of it made it sound quite creepy. What you write about the writing and the setting make it sound as if I would enjoy it after all. I don’t think I would be scared though. On the other hand I did find Susan Hill’s The Small Hand scary…

  7. Oh, this sounds good! Creepy but not scary enough to give me nightmares. Might be fun actually to read in the middle of winter with a heavy snow falling outside, snuggled under a quilt and cats inside and a big cup of cocoa in one hand.

  8. This one will have to wait until our weather here in California at least TRIES to resemble something other than summer. These atmospheric reads are perfect for the winter months.

  9. I just finished reading this book today and quite enjoyed it. I thought it was going to be better than it was, but it was a quick read and definitely creepy. Not outright scary but I did get a bit jumpy yesterday evening and had to read something else before bed last night so I didn’t have nightmares! I also loved the details and thought she really captured the scene well.

  10. I have a library copy in my pile at the moment and am still planning on reading it–though was waiting for October and cooler weather to accompany the read. Since I am usually alone, maybe I should reconsider exactly when I read it! Perhaps a well-lit gym will be better? 🙂

  11. Natalie – I will confess I have never had the nerve to watch The Exorcist, but I do believe that a good, sunny day can take the edge off any film. My friends also showed me how to watch the slasher bits of a movie on fastforward. Then they become really quite amusing!

    Sigrun – I think this might be quite a scary book if you were easily scared… Definitely, sit at a pavement cafe, or some other comfy, safe location!

    Squirrel – I do so agree with you that it’s reality that’s truly frightening. I mean, what can a ghost do to you? I much more afraid of making a fool of myself in front of the students! Nor could I manage to overwinter on the artic circle. I loathe the dying of the light. Could manage a night-free summer, though. This is a beautiful book for descriptions of the the north pole, and if you are interested in it, I’d recommend it just for that. The sense of place is very strong.

    Lilian – quite understand you can’t do spooky. I don’t like scary films. I’ve had The Others to watch for months and still haven’t got around to it!

    Rebecca – I feel the same! I really enjoyed it, reading it and not feeling scared. I think I would have resented it, if it had prevented me from sleeping that night. 🙂

    Andrew – we should really look into that at some point – have a blog-wide investigation into reading conditions and different types of writing. If books can make us forget our surroundings, make us laugh, make us cry, they should be able to make us scared. And yet it’s the hardest thing to evoke, I think. Mind you, I’ve never read horror stories, and it’s one of the few genres I’ve no interest in. Ghost stories are okay – they make it through because, I think, ghosts have so many interesting psychological and literary connotations for me.

    Arti – that’s the beauty of book blogs – sometimes the blogger reads the book so you don’t have to! Every sympathy with your dislike of scary films. I can’t do them, either.

    Caroline – funnily enough, I was talking about Susan Hill just the other day, and saying what a sadistic writer she is. She really makes her readers suffer, and I can’t bear that about her writing. That being said, The Woman In Black didn’t scare me – I was hopping mad by the end because of her usual sadistic tactics, but not scared. I thought that Dark Matter was a very well-written book, and the Arctic expedition dimension was also well done. For those reasons, I’d recommend it.

    Stefanie – and the bookman nearby, I think, then you’d have a nice safe scenario to read it in! I thought it was good, and whilst the menfolk were nearby doing their usual things, it wasn’t too scary at all for me.

    Kathleen – lol! Yes, those gorgeous sunny days probably aren’t conducive at all to imagining life on the north pole!

    KatieB – yes, I agree with you. It’s not a truly great book, but it’s a good read, and a very pleasant way to spend a few hours. It’s funny you should talk about reading a little mental palate cleanser before bedtime. I did something similar and began a new book! Clearly Dark Matter does have its spooky side.

    Danielle – lol! The first half is fine, you can read that anywhere. If you find yourself getting in the least bit spooked, do take it down the gym! It’s actually a very easy read, and you wouldn’t lose track of your place, even against all that grunting and groaning in the background! Would love to know what you make of this one.

    Jenny – oh yes! Then this is perfect for you. Do let me know what you think of it!

    Kailana – yes, it seems like you need to decide whether you want to be scared or not – and then pick the appropriate conditions! Hope you enjoy it if you do read it.

  12. Pingback: R.I.P. VII « So Many Books

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