“Dark Matter” is a ghost story of the kind only a master storyteller can get right. The sense of bone-deep, hair-raising, hope-defeating dread builds with a slow inexorability that is almost too much to endure.
It is a book that seems at first to about the atmosphere of a place and the state of mind of an individual producing an unshakable uneasiness. This defensive explanation of fear as a product of the confluence of nature and character turns out to be too brittle to stand against the truth: the presence of something deeply malevolent, unrelentingly vengeful and entirely supernatural.
“Dark Matter” tells, mostly in journal form, the story of a 1937 British scientific expedition to the Arctic that ended disastrously.
The journal writer is Jack Miller a lower-middle-class man who sees himself as having, through no fault of his own, “missed his chance” to make a career. At twenty-seven, to change his life, he signs on to be the radio operator for a five-man Arctic expedition, made up of privileged, Harrow and Oxford educated young men, none of whom have any Arctic experience.
Michelle Paver uses the journal format with great skill to let us see what the journal writer sees and all the things that he doesn’t see because he takes them for granted or they sit in a blind spot created by ignorance or inexperience.
In the early parts of the journal Jack is focused on the differences between himself and his upper-class companions, yet I was struck most by how similar they all are in their innocent unpreparedness and their unconscious sense of invulnerability. These young men are unable to imagine the reality of the terrible power of a winter. Although they have no experience of the Arctic, they are confident that, with the right kit, some teamwork and a bit of pluck, they can conquer it. This combination of ignorance, self-confidence and wealth is probably one of the most lethal forces on the planet.
The expedition is dogged by bad luck from the beginning, so that, by the time they are encamped in the Arctic, Jack is accompanied only by Gus the charismatic leader of the expedition, Algie Gus’ annoying, huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ best friend winter and a pack of huskies. As full winter arrives, events conspire to leave Jack alone for a time with the darkness, the dogs and a nameless malevolent presence.
The power of this book comes from the quality of the writing, which subtly creates and sustains an atmosphere of creeping dread, one small scene at a time, letting your imagination fall slowly into the endless dark of an Arctic night until you feel the overwhelming isolation of being alone in a deadly cold darkness so silent you can hear yourself blink. Then Michelle Paver cranks up the horror by introducing an awareness of a manifest evil, a dread that is nameless only because daring to name it would make it too real to be borne.
There is one journal entry that describes Jack becoming lost in fog on Halloween night, a short distance from the cabin he can no longer see. Nothing happens. Probably. Yet the passage held more fear in it than any confrontation with a monster could have produced.
I found the ending of the story very satisfying. There we no shortcuts and no cheap thrills, only the knowledge of how evil, once met, changes the lives of everyone it touches.
My enjoyment of the story was greatly increased by Jeremy Northam’s skilled narration. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an extract.