Sunday 16 September 2012

Dark Matter

I seem to be on a roll with Carl's R.I.P. VII as I've just finished my third book for it, Dark Matter - A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver.

Warning: This review might be a bit spoilerish although I've tried hard not to make it too much so.

Jack Miller is down on his luck. He has a dead-end job even though he struggled to get a physics degree back in the 1930s when someone from a poorish background like his rarely managed such an achievement. Almost at the end of his tether he answers an advert to join an expedition to the Arctic as the radio expert. He almost doesn't accept the offer. Meeting the five other members he finds they are from upper-class backgrounds and feels they are looking down on him. As he leaves he hears a comment to that effect and knows it for sure. Coming to his senses though, he realises that he would be missing a rare opportunity and basically has nothing to lose.

The five members end up as three when accidents befall two of the men. Jack is accompanied by Gus, a good looking young man, very much a leader of men, and Algie, plump and irritating. Jack takes to Gus but not to Algie.

They reach Norway and the three are tranported from Tromso to the island of Spitsbergen where they will spend the Arctic winter. They've picked a part of the island known as Gruhuken, an old mining area now deserted. But there's a problem. The captain of the ship transporting them, Eriksson, is not at all keen to take them to the spot they've chosen. When Jack tries to find out what the captain has against Gruhuken the man is tight-lipped: it's clear he's very much afraid of something but refuses to say what.

Eventually they reach the cove and set about making a camp. The crew stay to help but will not sleep ashore at night. In order to build a hut they have to demolish a hut built by the miners, which is not habitable, partly because of the terrible atmosphere there. And there's a strange post outside the hut known as the 'bear post' which is giving everyone the creeps.

The ship is about to leave and Jack, on his way back from a walk, sees the figure of a man standing beside the post, his head at a strange angle to his body. It was nobody that he knew. The ship leaves and the three men settle into a routine but something is not right. Jack is seeing and feeling strange things but feels he can't tell the others for fear of being ridiculed. Then Gus takes ill with apendicitis. Erikssen's ship returns and takes both Gus and Algie away, leaving Jack on his own with the winter darkness about to descend...

Well, this is a ghost story in the true sense of the word. It's told in journal fashion, a method which to me has a very Victorian feel to it, even though the story is set in 1937 with WW2 looming. The tension builds slowly. Even though there are small problems right from the start and the reader cannot help but feel the mission is doomed, you get carried away by the excitement the men so clearly feel, setting out, and are hoping for the best even though you just *know* it'll all end badly.

This is a genuinely creepy story. Not just the ghostly aspect which is well done and very effective, but more so because we watch the slow deterioration of a man's mind. It's impossible for anyone who hasn't done it to imagine how it must feel to be left completely alone in an Arctic winter. No daylight whatsoever to look forward to for four long months- no company, no one to speak to. Impossible *not* to go a bit potty, even in normal circumstances, let alone in a place that gives you the creeps. And this is all beautifully depicted by the author in this slow build-up to the devastating climax of the book.

I gather the author, Michelle Paver, has a fascination with Arctic wastes and has actually been to Northern Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Spitsbergen itself. This shows. To the point of the island feeling like a fourth character... the descriptions are so fantastic - the bleakness, the desolation, the stark beauty - you are actually *there*. I too am a bit taken with these regions so this was a massive plus for me and I adored this aspect of the book.

I wish there were more books written like this - more genuine ghost stories. Susan Hill is a master of the genre of course but I struggle to think of many others. Most fiction of this type was written in Victorian and Edwardian times as short stories, novels were rare, although some of the short stories could be pretty long. This book makes me want to search out some of the fantastic ones I've read and perhaps I will now do so. This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it if you fancy a proper ghostly read for RIP.

Two other reviews of this book are here at Margaret's blog, Booksplease and Susan's, You Can Never Have Too Many Books. I haven't read them yet as I wanted to come to the book fresh, but I shall go and read them now.

And another, GeraniumCat: here.


Kailana said...

Oh, this sounds good. On to the wish list it goes. :)

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Good old fashioned ghost stories are the best kind, and I love that this is told in journal entries. On to the wishlist it goes!

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I don't think your post is spoilerish. And I agree that this is a 'ghost story in the true sense of the word.' And I was amazed at Michelle Paver's bravery in doing the things she did in the Arctic!

(by the way I do find proving I'm not a robot is very difficult - I have to have several goes - I'm up to five goes now)

DesLily said...

hmmm "you watch the slow deterioratin of a man's mind".. if it's no different than a womans... then I've been there done that! heh..

it does sound creepy but truth be told I tried to read the Terror which I fully expected to like and after 160 pgs or so I gave up.. the "frozen ice and ship and the thing killing people" just wasn't doing it for me.. oh well.. sure glad you enjoyed this one!

I'm enjoying one that is very old "british" called An Unpardonable Crime.. really like the writing style you may want to read it too lol ..not that I want to make you get yet another book mind you!

LizF said...

It is a creepy book isn't it - I resorted to reading it in lunchbreaks at the office as trying to read it at home felt too uncomfortable thanks to my very over-active imagination.

If you have a fondness for all things Arctic, you might like Cold Earth by Sarah Moss about an archaeological dig in Greenland which is also pretty creepy.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

Great review, definitely not too many spoilers, so don't worry! I have made a note of this book, as I am not averse to a ghost story or two.

I haven't read any Michelle Paver before, but I think that is because I always associated her with Fantasy writing in her 'Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness' series and didn't realise that she had actually written so much more in other genres.

Thanks for highlighting the good things from this author that I have been missing.


Cath said...

Kelly: I don't think you'll regret putting it on your wishlist.

Sam: The 'journal' aspect of this was, for me, perfect. I always like books written in that manner as they feel so personal.

Margaret: I'm glad it wasn't too spoilerish. Hard to know how far to go sometimes.

Yes, apologies for the word verification thing. I left it off for months but all of a sudden the spam has got out of hand and I'm flooded with it. I'll take it off again soon and see how it goes.

Pat: If you don't like frozen wastelands then this may not be the book for you. *Although* that said, I notice The Terror is over 900 pages! Oh lord. Dark Matter is just 250 and a really quick read, so it's a different matter in my opinion.

I don't know An Unpardonable Crime... look forward to your thoughts on that.

It's a little late in life for me to start worrying about my book buying habit. LOL!

LizF: Yes... I couldn't read it as a bedtime read - too creepy.

I haven't heard of Cold Earth by Sarah Moss so will check that out on Amazon in a moment. Thanks for the rec.

Yvonne: I'm glad it wasn't too spoilerish, I certainly left out the reasons and results of what happened.

I'll be honest and say that I was not familiar with Michelle Paver at all, not even her YA fantasy series. I will certainly check those out now as I was very impressed with her writing.

DesLily said...

Having read Drood which is huge by Dan Simmons, the size of the Terror didn't stop me from trying to read it.. I just found what I did read boring and nothing was making me want to sit and read...that tells me to *let it go* and I did..very disappointed because I love Drood so much.

Cath said...

Pat: Best to let these things go then, in my experience. What a shame.

Susan said...

What a lovely review, Cath! I really enjoyed seeing how your love of the book comes through, the Arctic setting, the collapse (possibly) of Jack's mind, the loneliness and the is a deliciously creepy book, isn't it? So very glad you enjoyed this much! yaaay!

We just have to convince Pat that aside from the setting in the north, it's not similar to The Terror at all. I think she would like this one. I am sad The Terror did nothing for her too. But, that's books, so it's fun when one is enjoyed and liked like Dark Matter is!

Thanks for mentioning my review too :-)

DesLily said...

fyi: I"m reading Drood!! (again!)

Cath said...

Susan: It's a *very* deliciously creepy book. I do think though, that for me, the Arctic setting made the story. Her descriptions were fantastic.

I can't say about The Terror as I haven't read it, I just thought that Dark Matter being much shorter and having a plot that 'gets on with it' (lol), it might be more to Pat's taste. But, as you said, we all have different tastes and these days I'm quite happy to abandon a book if it's doing nothing for me, and have done it once already this RIP.

Reading short stories this weekend and have already read the John Connolly ones I planned to read. That upper berth story next...

Pat: Hope you're loving Drood as much as you did the first time (or second?)

Stefanie said...

I just finished this and, I absolutely loved it! I raced through it over the weekend and I got chills from more than just the crisp fall weather! I agree with you, I wish there were more ghost stories like this one. It was darn near perfect!

Cath said...

Stefanie: I got through the book very quickly too, mainly because I couldn't put it down! I hope the author writes more like this.

sakura said...

I read this last year and was really impressed by the way Paver conveyed the chill of the arctic, physically and psychologically. You can just imagine yourself slowly going mad in the same circumstances. Her sparse style certainly added to the tension. A brilliant ghost story.

Cath said...

Sakura: I agree, Paver conveyed the atmosphere of the arctic brilliantly. I'm sure I would go mad in similar circumstances... although *so* much time to read... maybe *not*.