Michelle PaverJanuary 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered a spot on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves for 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. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark.
I have always enjoyed ghost stories and this one requires hardly any suspension of disbelief at all. From the moment Jack and his team arrive at Gruhuken, far to the north of Norway’s last towns and villages, it is clear that something is not quite right. Not right at all, in fact.
The men busy themselves with setting up their experiments and, to begin with, don’t share with each other the deep, atavistic fear that gradually takes hold of each of them. There are no weeping apparitions or shrieking phantoms in the night – a night which stealthily becomes ever longer - but each man is increasingly privately seized with growing dread. Gruhuken, they begin to fear, doesn’t welcome them. And as the darkness deepens and one by one they leave, sick or injured, it is Jack who must carry the expedition’s hopes – and the growing psychological burden – all on his own.
Denouements in ghost stories can be terribly disappointing. All that tension and fear released in an unsatisfactory, feeble finish. Be not afraid. Well, actually, be very afraid. Dark Matter’s fearful conclusion will have you exchanging the light bulb in your bedside lamp for a much higher wattage before you dare even think about going to sleep.
Ghost stories don’t much frighten me but this one did. Quite a lot, actually. Michelle Paver’s tale is chilling in every respect, set as it is in the High Arctic. The place is the perfect backdrop to a story which depends on isolation, darkness, and bone-freezing cold to work its way steadily beneath the reader’s skin.
We start in fog-bound London. It is 1937 and the capital is jumpy about the looming war with Nazi Germany. Twenty-eight-year-old Jack is broke, lonely, and looking for an escape. He gets it when a small group of public-school educated explorer-adventurers offer him the chance to be their wireless-operator on a scientific expedition well inside the Arctic Circle. They arrive in summer, when the sun never sets: an ethereal world of midnight sunlight and strange, brooding silences.
The group commandeer a lonely, deserted outpost where once was a mine, and set up camp. But a series of accidents and strokes of bad luck mean that, one by one, the expedition’s founders must return to civilisation further south. Eventually Jack is left quite alone. Or is he? As the sun sinks ever lower in the frozen sky, finally to disappear comprehensively beneath the horizon for the pitch-black Arctic winter, Jack becomes horribly aware there is another presence in the camp. And it is not a friendly one.
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