Read this book: Dark Matter

This moody haunted tale takes its time, but delivers a solid scare.

Dark-Matter-jacket-200x315While 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.

Read this book: Cain’s Blood

Sympathy for a devil? Sci-fi meets serial killers in an intriguing and fast-paced thriller.

There’s nothing good to say about Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered, ate, and attempted to zombify 17 men from 1978-1991, except that he’s dead.

So imagine a novel where the reader identifies with the clone of this monster in the form of a “normal” 15-year-old boy. It’s here. It’s called Cain’s Blood, by Geoffrey Girard. And it works.


The plot: a secret government-related outfit has been cloning the nation’s most notorious serial killers in order to determine their genetic underpinnings, and then create a biopharma weapon. Some of the teenage closes escape, along with their creator, and former Army Captain Shawn Castillo is called in to track down the renegades. He stumbles upon Jeff Jacobson, a teenage clone of Dahmer, and together they travel the country searching for the clones.

First, what I didn’t like. Too much gore. I’m not a fan. But how can you escape gore in a book about serial killers?

Also, the protagonist, Castillo, is a stock thriller hero: nearly superhuman, endlessly brave, though haunted by a dark past. I tend to avoid books featuring a CIA/FBI agent, police detectives, forensics, etc. I like people who seem more relatable. Just my own preference.

The character who is relatable turns out to be the young Dahmer clone. And that’s what I liked most about this book. Jeff Jacobson thinks he’s a normal kid, and for the most part, he is. How does he react when he finds out the truth? Can he rise above his genetic heritage?

Girard hooks the reader in 3 ways:

–A great premise: while clones have been used in movies (The Boys from Brazil, The Island) and in fiction (JA Konrath’s The List, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go), Girard takes the concept in a dark and entertaining direction.

–Fast-paced storytelling skills. I burned through this book in a few days.

–Focusing on the plight of a normal kid in Jeff Jacobson, who must grapple with the whole nature/nurture issue.

About the science: this book takes on the nature/nurture debate. Is younger Jeff destined to become a serial killer, or would he be positively influenced by his upbringing? Girard hedges his bets here – some clones are murderous, others don’t seem to be.

But the reality is more complex. Technically, identical twins are clones of each other, yet they often do not turn out the same way. Some twins use different hands. Some twins are gay/gay, while others are gay/straight.

We know precious little about how genes work. For example, scientists are only beginning to learn about so-called junk DNA, the huge sections of our genetic code that seemingly have no function.

And then there’s epigenetics. Can life experiences actually affect the genetic code, not just for the self but for future offspring, several generations on? Scientists used to laugh this off. Now they’re not so sure.

Killer clones aside, truth is a lot more complex than fiction.