This moody haunted tale takes its time, but delivers a solid scare.
While writing my latest supernatural work I wanted a good ghost story to read. A google search brought me to a Guardian review of Michelle Paver’s novel Dark Matter. After a few false starts I got to reading it. The woman knows how create a chilling world.
The plot: In 1937 pre-war London, bored clerk Jack Miller signs up to a months-long Arctic expedition run by rich guys Gus, Algie and Hugo. But the isolated expedition site turns out to be haunted. Jack must battle loneliness and isolation as he struggles to survive both the elements and the supernatural force.
First, the positives.
Setting: The setting of Dark Matter is great. She describes the landscape beautifully, and the particulars of the mission confidently, transporting me to the Arctic. It’s obvious that Paver has done her research.
Foreshadowing: Several of the earlier scenes involve Eriksson, a grizzled Norwegian ship captain. His demeanor alone lets us know that nothing good will come from this expedition. And, as in many great horror tales, the neophytes don’t listen to the veteran’s advice.
Mood: Paver is a wordsmith, and she uses her words to spin a claustrophobic, isolated mood. Her writing is deceptively simple. Her language and descriptions are straightforward and powerful.
Jack Miller: he’s the main character of Dark Matter, and the story is told from his point of view. While he’s not the most forthcoming narrator, he is likeable. We root for him, early on, even as he remains hidden from us.
Isaak: Jack befriends one of the huskies, a playful pup named Isaak. I’m not an animal person (I once had a hermit crab that disappeared), but the dog gives the story some much-needed humanity. Animals are powerful in fiction; I learned that in my story Always Mine. My hero Danny has one loyal companion, his dog Rocky, who plays a key role in keeping Danny sane and safe. Their relationship led to some of the strongest feedback from readers. I can see why now. At some points I was more worried for Isaak than Jack.
And the negatives.
The story doesn’t kick in until well over 100 pages. Dark Matter is only a 250 page book. Much of the first 100 pages is setting up the story. I was tempted to put it down for good several times. But once it gets going it’s on fire.
Jack Miller, the hero, is underwritten. The most glaring omission: there’s no mention of any kind of sexual/romantic aspect to his character, inner or outer. Jack is in his mid 20s. There would be some small reference to that aspect of himself, or lack of. Paver previously wrote children’s books. She seemed hesitant to write a fully formed adult.
Perspective: A major flaw is how Dark Matter is told. It’s first person — Jack’s journal entries. But he’s an unreliable narrator, not just about the events but also his own self. I would have loved to see the wider story. We do get a glimpse of it when Jack reads the journal of one of his companions, and what we see is a starkly different version of Jack. I wonder what this story would have been like if written in the 3rd person.
Dark Matter is a flawed book, and I was torn for a while as to whether it warranted a recommendation. In the end, despite these flaws, Paver succeeded in crafting a haunting, disturbed world. Hopefully she will embrace adult fiction more fully.