by Michelle Paver
256 pages, Orion
Review by Bill Kirton
Usually, unless a book is very bad or, in the first few lines, has evidence that it’s been badly proofread, I get drawn into its fiction and am able to respond in all the familiar ways – catharsis, empathy, laughter, sadness, anger, anxiety, excitement and the rest. There’s one area, however, and one genre which, so far, has never produced the desired response. As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m congenitally incapable of being scared by ghost stories. I want to be scared, I’ve tried many which people have recommended, but it’s never happened. One of the most highly regarded modern(ish) examples of the genre is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I found it quite a boring read. BUT when I went to see Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of it, which has been running in London’s West End since 1989, it made the hairs rise on my neck and I found it a very scary experience.
Michelle Paver has a fine pedigree with her children’s series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness and was awarded last year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction prize, so she can obviously write. And yet, for all the fine writing in Dark Matter, for all the subtlety of her descriptions of the colours of Arctic skies and twilights, and despite the careful way she builds the tension and captures moods, the haunting refused to convince me in the same way that all the other elements here did.
It’s the story of an Arctic expedition in 1937 which begins with an intriguing refusal by one of the members of the expedition to contribute his thoughts on it and is then chronicled through the personal diary of Jack Miller as, one by one, the other members of the team are prevented from joining the trip or have to leave through illness. This leaves Jack alone in the perpetual night of an Arctic winter with only the dogs for company. (Well, and the ghost, of course.)
The settings, characters and relationships are conveyed with great skill and economy, and the feeling of spending progressively shorter days and longer nights in temperatures which dip further and further below freezing is so meticulously charted that it’s clear the author has first hand experience of the environment. As Jack moves through the routines of his lonely days, his diary records his self-analysis and begins to admit and examine the warmth he feels for the expedition’s leader, who’s had to be taken away from base to have an operation. At the same time, he becomes progressively convinced that he’s not alone and that the ‘ghost’ he sees is a malevolent force, held to the place by unspeakable things that happened to him there at the hands of others. At first he calls it an ‘echo’ of evil events, but gradually the ‘echo’ becomes a reality.
So what is it? Is it really a ghost or is it a delusion brought on by the loneliness and darkness of the place? Whatever it was, I was more interested in Jack’s responses to his fears than in the narrator’s suggestion that this unearthly ‘thing’ was real. The fault probably lies in me. To believe in supernatural phenomena, you need to accept the possibility of a ‘real’ spiritual or religious dimension, an alternative world which overlaps our own but which is inhabited by spirits. Klingons? Yes, OK. Vampires? Well, I can see them fitting in with other fetishes. But ghosts? No, sorry, I can’t suspend that particular type of disbelief.
None of which is to suggest I didn’t enjoy the book. I did, and I found it an entertaining read. I’m not sure what Paver was seeking in introducing the gap in social class between Jack and the others – it seemed almost a cursory extra, there to suggest another layer to Jack’s (and the leader’s) character. But the progress of Jack’s anxieties, the delights of his occasional joys and the strength of his character through his trials are absorbing. And the alienation of living in such an extreme environment is fascinating. But its sub-title is A Ghost Story and it just didn’t scare me.