Title: Dark Matter
Author: Michelle Paver
Publication Date: October 2010
Paperback: 256 Pages
Stand alone or Series: Stand alone novel
‘What is it? What does it want? Why is it angry with me?’ January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return – when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark.
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher (a really, really old review copy)
Why did I read this book: After hitting so many duds and meh reads lately, I decided that I was really in the mood for something dark and terrifying. I had completely forgotten that I had Dark Matter on my shelf, and then I remembered how much Ana loved the book when she read it last year. It seemed like the perfect time to give the book a read.
Jack Miller is a twenty-six year old lower-middle class failed academic, barely scraping by and without a hope for the future. As war progresses, Jack has only one hope to escape enlistment – by accepting a position on a team of upper class Cambridge types on an expedition to a remote location in the Arctic called Gruhuken, for a year of scientific observation. Although he’s initially put off by pretentiousness and softness of his employer-colleagues, on the way back from his interview, Jack comes across a dead body near his home – and the starkness, the hopelessness of that death is enough to change Jack’s mind about the amateur scientific expedition, and he agrees to travel and spend a long winter at Gruhuken.
When the crew arrives in Norway and begins their northward trek by boat, Jack is speechless at the cold, desolate beauty of the Arctic. When they get closer to Gruhuken, however, the expedition’s Scandinavian transport crew begins to get jittery and attempts to back out of the deal to take them to that isolated outpost. Something bad has happened at this place; the ruins of an abandoned mine, a huge gathering of picked-clean bones and rusted tools, and a stained, solitary bear post are all that remains to stand vigil over Gruhuken.
The expedition begins smoothly enough, although shortly before reaching their destination, the team loses one of their number (bringing the expedition crew down to just 3 men) – but the remaining members, Jack among them, are determined to make a go of their stay in Gruhuken. But as the days get shorter and the midnight sun finally disappears for a long, cruel winter of endless night, Jack knows – he feels and eventually sees – that something else is there with the men. Then, when the leader of the group, the handsome and charismatic Gus, develops a potentially deadly case of appendicitis, the fate of the expedition comes down to Jack. Despite his sighting of an impossible, malevolent apparition and the increasing sense of dread, Jack is determined to prove himself and his worth – especially to Gus – and fights off the sense of foreboding with logic. He volunteers to hold down the fort and save the expedition effort single-handedly while Gus seeks medical attention, taking Algie with him.
But in the endless dark, Jack realizes that his logic might not save him after all. He is not alone.
Finding a good horror novel – a truly resonant one, that manages to terrify you, entertain you, make you care for its characters, all while simultaneously giving you food for thought (and potential nightmares) – that is an increasingly rare thing, I think. It has been a long time since I’ve found a horror novel (or film, for that matter) that has managed to incite all of these emotions in me.
Enter Dark Matter, by the very talented Michelle Paver. Holy haunted bear post, Batman. This book is everything I have been looking for, and then some.
The story is simple, and unfolds with a sense of familiarity (which, somehow, only increases the level of dread). Michelle Paver understands the key to telling a ghost story – she plays within the confines of convention and doesn’t attempt to add any unnecessary embellishments or endless descriptive statements or gore (which, unfortunately, is an excess that many horror novels indulge in, much to their detriment). Rather, the tension and fear here is subliminal, creeping at an increasing rate to an inevitable crescendo of terror and tragedy. Plus, you can’t ever go wrong with a cabin/isolation story in an icy location (The Thing, “Ice” from The X-Files, etc).
I’m actually not a huge fan of ghost stories, simply because they are hard to write without sounding hokey or all-too familiar – but Dark Matter is the kind of book that makes you remember just how good an old fashioned ghost story can be. Written entirely in the first person in the form of Jack’s journal entries, Dark Matter is atmospheric and believable in the extreme – and actually quite believable too, as all Jack has with him to last that cold, dark winter are the sled dogs, a tinny radio, and his own thoughts on paper. Jack’s voice and increasing paranoia and his intense need to prove himself to Gus war with each other in this deeply personal log – of course, as removed readers, Jack’s justifications and rationalizations are clearly suicidal (rule #1 to survive a horror story: when you notice a dark, malevolent presence – aka a haunting – you GET THE EFF OUT AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE, rationality be damned!), but isn’t that why we love horror stories like this so much? The sense of the inevitable, the reluctance to act until it is too late?
To me, this was a perfect, quiet little tale of terror. One of the best true horror novels I’ve read in years, and absolutely recommended. (Just don’t read it until 2am like I did, in the middle of a cold, snowy night)
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prelude:
24th November 1947
Dear Dr Murchison,
Forgive me for this rather belated reply to your letter.
You will I am sure understand why I found it hard to entertain your enquiry with any pleasure. To be blunt, you evoked painful memories which I have tried for ten years to forget. The expedition crippled a friend of mine and killed another. It is not something I care to revisit.
In your letter, you conceded that you know little of Spitsbergen, or indeed of anywhere else in what is often called the High Arctic. This is to be expected. Few people do. Forgive me, though, if I question how you would then propose to understand what it can do to a man to overwinter there. To battle the loneliness and desolation; yes, even with the many comforts that our modern age affords. Above all, to endure the endless dark. And as circumstances dictated, it was Jack’s misfortune to be there alone.
I don’t think we will ever learn the truth of what happened at Gruhuken. However I know enough to be convinced that something terrible took place. And whatever it was, Dr Murchison, it was real. It was not the result of some phobic disorder. And in this respect I would add that before entering politics I undertook some years of study in the sciences, and thus feel myself entitled on two counts to be considered a reasonable judge of evidence. Moreover, no one has ever doubted my sanity, or proposed to include my ‘case’ in a monograph.
I don’t know how you came by the knowledge that Jack Miller kept a journal on the expedition, but you are right, he did. I saw him writing in it many times. We used to rag him about it, and he took this in good part, although he never showed us its contents. No doubt the journal would, as you suggest, explain much of what happened; but it has not survived, and I cannot ask Jack himself.
Thus I fear that I am unable to help you. I wish you well with your work. However I must ask you not to apply to me again.
You can read a full PDF download excerpt (from a later portion of the book, be warned!) HERE.
Additional Thoughts: So, you like horror set in an icy setting, do you? I’ve had this book on my TBR for YEARS now – and I’m thinking it’s time to finally dust it off and tackle it (I really have no excuse as Dan Simmons is one of my favorite authors – but finding the time to devote to this kind of tome with a tight blogging schedule to keep is hard!)
The men on board HMS Terror have every expectation of triumph. As part of the 1845 Franklin Expedition, the first steam-powered vessels ever to search for the legendary Northwest Passage, they are as scientifically supported an enterprise as has ever set forth. As they enter a second summer in the Arctic Circle without a thaw, though, they are stranded in a nightmarish landscape of encroaching ice and darkness. Endlessly cold, with diminishing rations, 126 men fight to survive with poisonous food, a dwindling supply of coal, and ships buckling in the grip of crushing ice. But their real enemy is far more terrifying. There is something out there in the frigid darkness: an unseen predator stalking their ship, a monstrous terror constantly clawing to get in.When the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin, meets a terrible death, Captain Francis Crozier takes command and leads his surviving crewmen on a last, desperate attempt to flee south across the ice. With them travels an Inuit woman who cannot speak and who may be the key to survival, or the harbinger of their deaths. But as another winter approaches, as scurvy and starvation grow more terrible, and as the terror on the ice stalks them southward, Crozier and his men begin to fear that there is no escape. The Terror swells with the heart-stopping suspense and heroic adventure that have won Dan Simmons praise as “a writer who not only makes big promises but keeps them” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). With a haunting and constantly surprising story based on actual historical events, The Terror is a novel that will chill you to your core.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection. For what it is, it is perfect; a perfectly executed ghost story.
Buy the Book:
Ebook available for kindle UK