The Darkness, The Coldness, The Solitude and The Horror. Oh The Horror
Someone recommended children’s author Michelle Paver’s adult book, Dark Matter to me. And I wish I could remember who – it was another reviewer or a book blogger. Thank you, whoever you are.
This is fabulously terrifying. It is described as a ghost story, but the terror is the way Paver takes the reader into the mind of her central character, Jack Miller. Set in the 30s, Miller is an intelligent man, from a poor background. Trained as a physicist his education takes him out of his own class, and into the rigidly upper class world of higher education (at that time). Poverty and class, and his own suspicious nature, seeing insult both where insult is intended and when it is not, have held him back from continuing his education and climbing into social poise.
He gets the opportunity to be part of an exploratory group doing research in the Arctic, as a wireless operator, to be part of a group with a handful of other men.
Something fated hangs over the group, as one by one they drop away through family disaster or illness, even before starting out. A Norwegian Ship Captain, charged with getting the by now shrunken group of 3 men to a remote (fictitious) place somewhere far beyond the Svalbard Archipelago, does not want to take the men to their destination. He and his crew hint at a history of the place which is too dark and terrifying even to be uttered.
The group of 3 – two of them representatives of the British ruling class, and Miller, discount these hinted at warnings of doom and horror, and insist on the rational approach.
First there is the natural claustrophobia and tension which might arise for any isolated group in wilderness. Then there is the added growing terror of – not the land of the midnight sun, but the time when it turns to the land of the noonday dark. The endless four month night.
Paver has us inhabit Jack’s mind, and it is the terror of one’s own fears which give this powerful novel its force.
I did not even need anything ‘unexplainable’ to happen to render me sweaty palmed, racing pulsed, and sick to my stomach in fear.
Imagining the howling wind, the intense darkness, the isolation of a frozen sea where no ship can come for several months was enough.
Imagine as the world turns to that four month darkness :
Only an hour or so of twilight is enough to confirm normality……Without that – when all you can see out the window is black………..The suspicion flickers at the edge of your mind: maybe there is nothing beyond those windows. Maybe there is only you in this cabin, and beyond it, the dark
Paver slowly ratchets up the endless darkness and a brooding malevolence in the limitless, icy wastes, where anything begins to be plausible, because imagination will make the impossible real.
Oh there certainly are recountings and happenings to make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, but, for me, it is the confrontation with insidious thoughts and reflections which are the real chill
The stillness is back. The dead cold windless dark. That’s the truth. The dark. We’re the anomaly. Little flickering sparks on the crust of this spinning planet – and around it the dark
Atmospheric, haunting, and genuinely terrifying (if you have any imagination at all!)
I recommend it all right. At least while it is daylight.
The book is accompanied by illustrations of that Polar landscape, between the chapters.