It's 1937, and 28-year-old Jack Miller, down on his luck and desperate for opportunity, falls into the chance of a lifetime: being the wireless operator for a scientist expedition heading from London to the high north. Fogs and the spectre of war might hang over London, but what could possibly be over the Arctic except the midnight sun? Little does the team know what lurks in acclaimed British writer Michelle Paver's Dark Matter: A Ghost Story.
Paver's Ghost Hunter (the concluding volume in her internationally bestselling Chronicles of Ancient Darkness young-adult series), won the 2010 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Dark Matter is her first adult novel, and she succeeds in creating a compelling ghost story that quietly frightens. While written for the adult market, Dark Matter is a perfect ghost story for fireside reading for teens as well.
The novel is presented as Jack's journal, narrating the expedition from start to finish. The original expedition of five men shrinks to four before departing London. They travel to Norway, their final destination the remote and stark island of Gruhaken. They head out by ship with eight huskies and high spirits. Tragedy strikes again and the group is reduced to three before making landfall. Norwegian Captain Eriksson tries to warn of the dark mining and trapping history of Gruhaken, but the expedition will not be thwarted by salty superstition.
They arrive at Gruhaken, but even the startling brightness of the Arctic summer sun doesn't lighten the shadows of unease that begin to fall. As the darkness and cold of winter close over the camp, illness besets them and two more members depart. Only Jack remains to keep the mission alive. But he soon realizes what he has glimpsed in the fog and snow is not just light and shadow. He and the dogs are not alone, and whatever is out there wants inside.
The book is reminiscent of the work of cult horror icon H.P. Lovecraft, primarily the novella At the Mountains of Madness, in which the narrator tries to warn off future scientific expeditions from an ominous Arctic site. A hallmark of Lovecraft's work is stories told through journals, letters and scientific notes and records.
Dark Matter opens with a letter, 10 years after the events, addressed to a doctor requesting information on the ill-fated expedition for a study on phobic disorders. The letter, while setting the ominous pitch of the book, gives a bit too much of the story away. Jack's simple narrative voice effectively carries the entire story, and the opening seems extraneous. This is a slim volume, but Paver writes well and it would be a pleasure to have a longer section on life and relationships at camp before Jack is abandoned. The story turns on Jack's relationship with Gus, a team member who is shipped off the island for emergency surgery, and while there is a poignant exchange via wireless messages, the emotional impact of the ending would have more weight if we had a better sense of their friendship before Jack was left alone.
Paver has a gift for depicting the otherworldly landscape of the extreme north. She creates stark snapshots with her words, pictures that amplify the frightening tone: "Dazzling snowcapped mountains enclosed a wide bay dotted with ice caps. The water was still as glass, mirroring the peaks. At the eastern end of the bay, tall cliffs the colour of dried blood were thronged with seabirds … at the western end, shining pavements of pewter rock sloped down to the sea, and a stream glinted, and a tiny, ruined hut huddled among boulders. The charcoal beach was littered with silver driftwood and the giant ribs of whales."
Vivid imagery like this, and rapid action, move the story along, Jack's entries conveying a growing sense of the inevitable.
Ultimately, Paver creates an eerie and entertaining tale. Its narrative drive lies in the understated and hushed telling, and like all fine ghost stories, leaves the reader wondering if anxiety and isolation create madness and illusion, or if madness is what we call something we can't explain … and can't forget.
Christy Ann Conlin's next adult novel, Listening for the Island, is a ghost story. Her first YA novel, Dead Time, was published in January.