You may or may not be familiar with All Hallow’s Read, a new book-centric holiday tradition invented by the genius Neil Gaiman. Two years ago, the illustrious Mr. Gaiman decided that there were far too few excuses to put books in others’ hands, and so put together this delightful, globe-spanning event. As with last year (with two fabulous guests), we’ve decided to continue the tradition and have invited the lovely Heidi of Bunbury in the Stacks to play!
Please give a warm welcome to Heidi!
Author: Michelle Paver
Publication Date: October 2010
Paperback: 288 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand Alone Novel
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 join 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…
Oh how I love The Book Smugglers. They were the first book blog I ever read, and the one I’ll keep reading long after my life takes over and I’m too busy to keep up with everyone. So when Thea and Ana invited me to participate in All Hallows Read with them this year I capslock smashed YES into the keyboard as fast as I could type. Of course, it was only then that I realized that this meant I would have to read a spooky book. We all know Ana’s a bit of a wimp, but I have to admit the label fits me quite accurately as well. Upside is, this means I’m a pretty clean slate as far as horror reads go, and was thrilled when Ana and Thea gifted me with a scary favorite of theirs, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. Downside is, three days after finishing the book I have horrid stiff neck pain because I’m too afraid to turn over and sleep with my back to the door at night.
“In one of my periodicals, there’s a paper by someone who’s working out that what we know of the universe is only a tiny percentage of what actually exists. He says what’s left can’t be seen or detected, but it’s there; he calls it ‘dark matter’. Of course, no one believes him; but I find the idea unsettling. Or rather, not the idea itself, that’s merely an odd notion about outer space. What I don’t like is the feeling I sometimes get that other things might exist around us, of which we know nothing.”
Jack considers himself a victim of the British class system, which has trampled his dreams of being a scientist and left him lonely and working at a mundane job. When he encounters the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition in 1937, he enthusiastically accepts his place on a small crew bound for Gruhuken, a small island off of Spitsbergen. But, as the light fades toward four months of winter, the party falls from five to one, and Jack must decide whether to move forward as the savior of the expedition, or to flee to safer lands. Because even when all of Jack’s companions have left Gruhuken, he knows with certainty that he is not alone.
Thea and Ana couldn’t have known when they handed me Dark Matter that it may be the perfect horror story for me. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the Arctic. Winter is my favorite season, I adore Jack London, the Iditarod, and Svalbard (the current name for Spitsbergen) is easily on my top 10 list of places I’d love to visit before I die. I’ve even spent some time above the Arctic Circle, among the fisherman of Lofoten Islands, but this was still hundreds of miles south of where Jack and his crew set up their camp on Gruhuken. When I lived in Norway, I found the midnight sun to be more of a hindrance than the unending night, but then, I was never left alone with it, locked in a contest to see who would blink first.
Dark Matter is told in the epistolary format, which I feel is ideal for setting one on edge. It’s so easy to look at a novel told in journal entries and cling to them as a security blanket. This is our narrator writing, he has to be okay to write it, so clearly nothing truly terrible can happen to him. Right? But what about that letter at the beginning? The one that tells us that someone comes away injured, and someone else comes away dead. With the foreboding sense of a Shakespearean tragedy we enter the scene wondering what will happen if, at some point, the journal entries stop?
A journal is so unflinchingly personal that through his writing Jack is able to draw us into the story and make us privy to his own personal hell. We cannot be impartial observers, we are forced to see things as Jack sees them, the good, the bad, and the terrifying. In Dark Matter, things that you would never worry about on a normal day become the most important objects of focus. The ability to tell time, the waxing and waning of the moon, the distance of a pole from your cabin window…
When Jack first lays eyes on Gruhuken, it is with a heart aching hopefulness. He views this expedition as his chance to escape, to be somewhere that is all his own, to become someone and something he can be proud of. For the first time in his life Jack feels a sense of accomplishment, a sense of triumph, and comradery–perhaps more–with his companion Gus. Even when Jack first begins to realize that Gruhuken is haunted, it is so easy to brush it off as a harmless, if disquieting, echo of the past. There is still light, there is work to do, and Gruhuken is theirs.
It is disturbing to watch Jack’s lonely descent into terror, to understand how when a man has something to truly fear, every mundane aspect of the day can add fuel to those flames. Jack wants so badly to be Gus’s hero, to be his own hero, that he internalizes all of his fears, falling easy victim to cabin fever.
Of course, Dark Matter isn’t all introspection and restlessness, it is a captivating and horrific ghost story, the likes of which has not been matched in my reading. Dark Matter took my love of the Arctic and made it something to fear, chilling me to the core in a way that a haunted house story never could. Suddenly the sound of snow crunching, which I adore, is full of menace. The thought of holing up in a cozy little cabin with a book and the radio while it snows outside is no longer an appealing winter vacation. On top of which, Dark Matter introduced me to draugs, something I’ve always feared but never had the name for.
I’ll admit to two big irrational fears (because the rest of them are completely rational). Statues, and dead people underwater. Yes, statues of people underwater have made me scream and run out of aquariums. No, I do not like the ocean. According to Scandinavian folklore, a draug is the “unquiet spirit of a drowned man who lurks in the shallows, waiting to drag the unwary to their doom”. So hey, thanks Michelle Paver for putting a name to something that’s always terrified me…but did you have to make the whole thing so damn scary? I literally whimpered aloud, I was on the verge of tears and/or throwing up, and there’s a good chance if I had been alone in the house with no witnesses both would have occurred.
So as you can see, Dark Matter was probably the perfect spooky book for me to receive for All Hallows Read. I may not have the biggest backlog to compare it to, but it easily ranks #1 as the scariest book I’ve ever read. And surprisingly, I loved it. If you’re looking for a spooky read to share this All Hallows Read, look to Dark Matter. But consider gifting them a night light as well.
Thank you Heidi (we apologize for twisting your love for the Arctic – but we’re thrilled you loved the book as much as we did)! And a Happy All Hallow’s Read to All!
Poster via Introverted Wife