Dark Matter: a ghost story by Michelle Paver

A quick palate cleanser after the epic Troubled Blood, and another 99p special. I’m not familiar with Ms Paver’s work, but I am familiar with supernatural scares in an arctic landscape – one of those classic gothic settings. I think Michelle Paver is better known for her YA fiction, which is possibly why this reminded me a little of Alan Garner.

This is yet another men-without-women narrative, which makes me sigh, but given that it’s at least written by a woman I suppose we can forgive it. It’s better (and shorter) than Dan Simmons’ The Terror, anyway.

Four young men of a certain class are planning a scientific expedition to the island known as Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle, and they persuade a fifth (not of their class) to join them. Jack Miller is desperate to get out of his current situation and although he has qualms about not fitting in with the upperclassmen, he signs up to be their radio operator.

Their destination is the (fictive) abandoned mining camp of Gruhuken, and (as you’d expect in a gothic novel), the locals try to persuade them not to go there without saying why. Before they arrive, two of the expedition members are forced to drop out, but the rest press ahead, determined to record a full year of weather data and survive the darkness of the Arctic winter.

The group doesn’t quite gel. Jack is understandably chippy; Algy is thoughtless, cruel, and annoying; and Gus is caught between the two. Jack harbours what is possibly a secret crush on Gus, but before their Norweigian captain and his crew, who have reluctantly delivered them to Gruhuken, depart, he sees something – or someone – that shouldn’t be there, which he decides to keep to himself instead of sharing.

So the tone is set. Every man is alone in his own mind, and soon Jack is entirely alone, apart from the (unnecessary) dog team they’ve brought with them.

The sun dips below the horizon and four months of darkness begins.

There’s some interesting metalepsis here. The novel begins with a letter written by Algy, then segues into Jack’s journal, and at one point Jack quotes from Gus’ own journal. Frames within frames. And as the reader experiences this mise-en-abîme, whatever it is that is out there in the dark comes closer.

This is a good read, though not as scary as it wants to be, not Francine Toon hair-on-end chilling. But it’s a good yarn, well researched, with a strong sense of place.

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