It's a good time to be a fan of Arctic chillers, this. An appropriate time, what with the shiver of the season drawing nearer day by day and the first frosts glistening a dismal greeting, and a rewarding time, too: Graham Joyce's brilliantly bittersweet ode to The Silent Land is just out, and in the interim, there's Dark Matter by Michelle Paver to keep you and the midnight oil company through the long, cold nights to come.
Broke and down on his luck despite a King's College education, and unbearably lonely even amongst the bustling mass of bodies in a London betwixt the great wars, when four well-to-do young gentlemen approach Jack hoping to recruit him as their wireless operator for a forthcoming expedition to the Arctic, he jumps at the chance. In Gus, an affable Adonis of sorts, he finds a friend, and perhaps something more; though the others—Hugo, Teddy and Algie—only serve to remind Jack of his innumerable hardships. He thus views the expedition as an opportunity to make something of himself, to win a reputation and the respect of his would-be peers. In the early chapters of Paver’s latest a sporting motif emerges as if to underscore that notion: on the trip to Longyearbyen, where the party will depart in a few short days, Jack glimpses the carcass of a walrus of late dismembered by a ravenous polar bear strewn across the icy plains, "and its body looked curiously deflated, like a giant, kicked-in football. Then I realised why. Something had gnawed a hole in its belly and eaten it from the inside." (p.40)
Putting aside a few grim omens of that order, Jack finds himself anxious to begin the expedition in earnest. "There'll come a time when it's always dark . . . I can't wait. I want to see if I can take it," (p.22) he writes in his journal—his journal being the primary means of storytelling in this all-but epistolary narrative—as well as: "Sometimes I wish it wasn't going to be quite so easy. It's as if we'll be playing at being in the Arctic. Not the real thing at all." (p.22) Jack's journal also works to illuminate something of his character; such insights as "I don't know where the crew sleeps, or even how many there are, as I can't tell them apart. They're all splendid Nordic types with formidable beards and amazingly clean overalls" (p.25) speak to his introspective, some might say self-involved outlook on events, and to the narrowness of his perspective—and, by extension, ours.
Ominously, the chaps' plan to overwinter in the bay of Gruhuken meets with a battery of warnings from the locals at Longyearbyen. There will be the cold to contend with, of course; the unending darkness and the pristine desolation of the Arctic; and to make matters worse, before they've even made camp, five have become four—Teddy's father dies, and though the fellow is "frightfully cut up" (p.16) about it, he bows out from the adventure—and four, in short order, become but three when Hugo trips on a rope and breaks a leg. And "There are worse things" (p.50) to come, as the grizzled sloop captain who only after much debate agrees to ferry the men stresses.
Dark Matter is a larder packed full of all the requisite ingredients of a good ghost story, then: an isolated and inherently atmospheric setting, an ethereal threat whose name locals fear to speak, an array of skeptical outsiders undeterred by the portentous tales—all present and correct. But needless to say, the right ingredients alone do not a meal worth remembering make. It takes craft, finesse, ambition and an acute sense of style to turn them into something special, and Paver, who cut her literary teeth on the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series—six novels of phantasmagoric, hunter-gatherer fantasy purportedly for young adults—is an artist apt to make the task appear effortless. Dark Matter is a spare novel, and at 250 pages of small paragraphs in large font, a short one. So brief is Paver's ghost story, in point of fact, that Dark Matter invites a species of close reading—akin to that you might have approached The Road with—one has difficulty mustering when faced with more expansive narratives.
Remarkably, the text bears such scruples. Five years writing for a younger audience have bestowed a directness and an energy on Paver's prose that proves captivating. Her abbreviated cast of characters (for one only truly gets to know Jack, Gus and Algie) leap forth fully formed, and though they are neither a complex lot—the gentleman in the making, the aspirational God-boy, the chubby troublemaker—nor particularly likable out of the gate, one quickly finds oneself invested in their unlikely outing.
And Gruhuken. Oh, Gruhuken...
It's mostly made up, according to the author's note. Whether or not Paver needed to travel "by ship around the whole [Spirtsbergen] archipelago, putting in at many beautiful, desolate places, including ruined mines and trapper's camps" (p.244) to facilitate the composition of Dark Matter—apparently a decade in the offing—well . . . who can blame a person for expensing a holiday as out there as that? Gruhuken is, as I was saying, mostly made up, but for all that the Godforsaken bay on the outer rim of the Arctic plays an unspeakably crucial role in the narrative. Paver imbues it with a sense of place and time so authentic as to remind one of Caitlin R. Kiernan's last novel, a brilliant Blair Witch Project-esque affair in which a writer banished to the woods of rural Rhode Island rather loses her marbles. Nor do the parallels between The Red Tree and Paver's novel end there. The narrators of each gradually unravel like spools of so much barbed wire at the instigation of some unknowable entity bound to their remote surroundings; both are epistolary fictions; both employ the form in order to worry away a cavernous sense of uncertainty in their readers. Thus, the attentive reader would do well not to trust Jack’s record completely—particularly given that he hardly trusts himself. Tormented and alone during his last days on the island, he wonders:
Is it the human compulsion to name things, to assert control? Perhaps the same compulsion drives our meteorology: all that observing, measuring, recording. Trying to render bearable this vast, silent land.
And is that, too, why I’ve been writing this journal? To set everything down clearly, make sense of it? If it can be described, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it need not be feared.
“I say ‘to set down everything’, but of course, I’ve been selective. And having flicked through these pages, I’m surprised at what I’ve chosen to put in. Why did I begin with that corpse being pulled from the Thames? And why mention that black-faced polar bear guarding its kill? (p.189)
One requires only a passing knowledge of the scientific principles which Paver references in her title to grasp that Dark Matter is a novel very much concerned with the subjectivity of experience. Most of the boffins believe something to the order of 80% of the matter in the galaxy is constituted from dark matter, and yet, unnervingly, we can neither measure nor detect the stuff; we know of its existence, insofar as science can truly be said to know anything, only by inference. Paver applies this distinctly ambiguous conception of the substance of the universe entire to her portrayal of Jack’s time on the ill-fated isle. One chilling sequence has our well-to-do young Englishman lost amid a sudden flurry of wind and snow mere meters from his tar-papered cabin. "The birds have gone. The cliffs are silent. There's a sense of something waiting," (p.100) and in the unfathomable darkness of the Arctic winter, he cannot for a long moment discern the black abode from the black night drawn around it like a fuligin cloak. For all intents and purposes—for all the use it is to him—the cabin might as well be a figment.
So, too, does Paver paint the ghost of this splendid ghost story: it exists, at least for the larger part, in the negative spaces, between the lines, and then only by implication. From "a faint, disagreeable smell of seaweed" (p.88) and "an odd, muffled scraping. A sound as of metal dragged over rock," (p.145) Jack intimates a presence from among the startling absence of Gruhuken. The seaweed stink can only have originated from some foul-smelling thing, he reasons; and if he hears a sound, someone—or else something—must have made it.
Precisely who or what that something is, I’ll leave for you to discover on your own terms. And well you should, for Dark Matter is a deeply unsettling narrative I would recommend without a qualm, were it not for a couple of climactic chapters during which Paver ventures outwith the bounds of the frugal epistolary form she employs for the remainder—and indeed returns to. The last-minute deviation feels cheap rather than dramatic, stifling the mounting tension rather than inflaming it. Better that Paver had excised the offending section and allowed us to infer from its absence what we might than break with the established pattern at such a pivotal point; better, as according to that old storyteller’s adage, that she had shown rather than told. Nevertheless, Dark Matter stands strong among the most accomplished chillers of the past decade, artfully understated despite its momentary overstatement of the case, evocative, intelligent, and endlessly suspenseful. An exceedingly effective ghost story with which to keep the old gentleman Jack at bay come the chill fingers of winter.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes from a dank and none too mysterious hidey-hole somewhere in the central belt of Scotland, where no one can hear his screams. Neither coincidentally nor particularly imaginatively, he blogs his days away at The Speculative Scotsman.