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.
Confession time: I have not read any of Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books, and I'm not sure I ever will. Yes, I know they are critically acclaimed and have won many awards, including the recent Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, but the era in which they are set just does nothing for me. I prefer my historical fiction to be set in Tudor, Restoration or Victorian times, and with so many books to read and so little time I have to draw a line somewhere. Feel free to heap criticism after criticism on me for this but I very much doubt you will change my feelings on this.
Despite never having read any of her previous work I was easily tempted into reading her latest offering, her first adult ghost story, Dark Matter. There has been quite a buzz on Twitter for this book over the past couple of months, and with Halloween fast approaching I thought I would give it a try. Fortunately, the wonderful team at Orion took pity on my begging and I very soon had a copy in my hands, and with my wife away this weekend what better time to start reading a ghost story? I began to read it on the train into London, on my way to the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival, and throughout the day it was constantly niggling at the back of my mind as I couldn't wait to get back to it. The train journey home saw me again immersed deep within the story, and when I got home I was determined to finish it before going to sleep. With hindsight this wasn't such a great idea - I really did not sleep well last night, my mind questioning every creak, bump and thud the house made.
The story is written in the form of a journal, written by Jack Miller. The year is 1937, and through a series of unfortunate events Jack has found himself wishing his days away whilst earning a pittance working six days a week as an export clerk at Marshall Gifford, stationers. The beginning of Jack's journal details his first meeting with a group of upper-class, wealthy young men who are thirsty for adventure and wish to mount an expedition to the High Arctic to study the botany and geology of the area, as well as to transmit meteorological data back to the British Government. However, they require a trained radio operator.... enter Jack. After this first meeting Jack almost decides to forget the whole idea - he feels very much like a fish out of water when surrounded by the snobberies of the group, but a chance viewing of a body being pulled out of the Thames on his way home puts things into perspective for him and he soon finds himself travelling North.
Jack's journal gives us a very intimate account of his innermost thoughts as he makes the long journey to Gruhuken, a bleak and desolate bay in the Spitsbergen region, deep within the Arctic Circle and miles away from the nearest settlement. As such, we soon come to know Jack's character very well, including all of his flaws; this means that at times Jack is a difficult person to like, as despite the efforts shown by some of his fellow adventurers he can still be quick to rebuff them. However, whether we like him or not, as each event occurs that leads ultimately to Jack being left on his own at the group's outpost we feel for him every step of the way, and feel nothing but worry and fear for him as he is finally left in isolation.
At 240 pages Dark Matter is much slimmer than many adult horror stories published these days (compare it with the 750+ pages of Justin Cronin's The Passage), and I think it is so much better for this. Michelle Paver use words economically, managing to create an incredible sense of slow brooding menace that keeps the reader gripped. She also shows a great deal of skill when it comes to foreshadowing - the story is laced with tidbits of information that we soak in without realising it, yet these are all essential to the ever growing feeling of terror that we feel once the group reach Gruhuken. In the first half of the book much of this is done through the character of Eriksson, skipper of the boat that takes the group to Gruhuken. Eriksson is a seasoned voyager in these areas, and tells the group many tales of his life and the area, yet whenever the subject of Gruhuken arises he clams up and refuses to comment, even to the point of claiming that he was never contracted to take them so far. For a man of obvious honour, as a reader we are left with no doubt as to the potential horror that awaits the group in Gruhuken.
This is a book written for the adult market but will be enjoyed just as much by many readers who fall within the so-called Young Adult age range. There is no bad language, no sex, no blood or gore - this is pure ghost story that relies on a mastery of the craft of writing to create a sense of lingering terror in the reader that will not go away easily once the book is finished.