Michelle Paver, Dark Matter: A Ghost Story. Orion. 2010.
Reviewed by Glennis Byron, University of Stirling.
Michelle Paver’s first foray into the world of adult fiction has produced a quite wonderful and deeply unsettling ghost story. Set in the Arctic in the fictional outpost of Gruhuken, a place of inhuman beauty and cruelty, Dark Matter explores a heart of darkness in the very depths of the endless polar nights: a ‘tide of blackness’ that eventually engulfs all.
The narrative begins with a letter from Algernon Carlisle replying to a scientist working on phobic disorders. He has been asking him about an Arctic expedition some ten years previously. ‘I fail to see how the “case” (as you put it) of Jack Miller could provide appropriate material for such a work’ (1), Carlisle writes, questioning the scientist’s ability ‘to understand what it can do to a man to overwinter there. To battle the loneliness and desolation… Above all, to endure the endless dark’ (2).
And with this some of the main questions raised by the story are immediately set out: what exactly happened to Jack Miller: did Jack find something in the Arctic, or did Jack bring something to the Arctic? What was he looking for, what was he fleeing from, and perhaps most importantly, what did he find?
This is primarily an epistolary narrative, mostly told through Jack’s own journal. A grammar school boy with a UCL degree and a chip on his shoulder, Jack, poor, overworked, disillusioned with his life, is recruited as a wireless operator by four well-to-do young men planning an expedition to the High Arctic: Hugo, Teddy, Algie, and Gus, an affable and handsome Boy’s Own hero.
The expedition seems doomed to failure from the start: Teddy’s father dies and although feeling ‘absolutely ghastly’ about it, Teddy backs out. Hugo is next, breaking a leg on the journey. Then the captain of the ship is mysteriously reluctant to take them to their destination, Gruhuken: ‘It’s … bad luck’, is all he will say, ‘Things happen there’ (50).
And yet Jack is determined to succeed in Gruheken, to make Gruheken his own, ‘I hate all this raking up of the past’ (62), ‘I hate all this pawing over ruins’ (65), he writes, and insists on tearing down all that remains of previous settlement, first the old trapper’s hut and then the bear post that, the text increasingly suggests, has been the focus of much horror. But the past is not that easily put to rest, and once Gus becomes ill, and must leave accompanied by Algie, Jack is left alone to discover that perhaps the ‘one who walks’ is more than just an ‘echo from the past’ (109).
The idea of ‘dark matter’ in the universe was first postulated in 1934 (three years before the fictional narrative begins) and Jack reads about this in a periodical:
… there’s a paper by someone who’s worked out that what we know of the universe is only a tiny percentage of what actually exists. He says what’s left can’t be seen or detected, but it’s there; he calls it ‘dark matter’. Of course no one believes him; but I find the idea unsettling. … What I don’t like is the feeling I sometimes get that other things might exist around us, of which we know nothing. (93)
And inside us, we could perhaps add.
Jack is by no means an entirely reliable narrator, and it is not just events, but his own reactions to events that he attempts, in a rather Jonathan Harker like manner, to understand through his journal:
Is it the human compulsion to name things, to assert control? Perhaps the same compulsion drives our meteorology: all that observing, measuring, recording. Trying to render bearable this vast, silent land.
And is that, too, why I’ve been writing this journal? To set everything down clearly, make sense of it? If it can be described, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it need not be feared. (189)
Paver’s spare and clean style pushes the narrative along quickly, but it nevertheless calls for a close and attentive reading. Even Jack seems to recognise that there is something to be learned from the narrative he produces:
I say ‘to set down everything’, but of course, I’ve been selective. And having flicked through these pages, I’m surprised at what I’ve chosen to put in. Why did I begin with that corpse being pulled from the Thames? And why mention that black-faced polar bear guarding its kill? (189)
All the way through there are hints of deeper meanings, details which, while never made entirely clear, gather more and more significance, become increasingly ominous. What is the significance of the repeated references to the smell of paraffin? What are we to make of the repeated image of the dark ‘round, wet head’ that is first linked to the corpse fished out of the Thames, and then re-emerges with the seal emerging from the water in the picture above Jack’s mantelpiece, the thing that hauls itself out of the sea, the reflection Jack sees in the dog’s eyes? And when Jack first sees the ghost ‘crouched at the edge of the rocks… streaming wet’, it is a description we would do well to recall at the climactic moment, just after Jack finally recognises in himself what we have been aware of for so long.
Paver’s spare and simple style is deceptive, and this is certainly a book that would reward a second and even a third reading. Dark Matter is certainly one of the most accomplished ghost stories I have read for many years, and, as with all the best ghost stories, we are never allowed to feel entirely secure in our interpretation of events. Indeed, at the end I was even left wondering if I had, unknowingly, been in a kind of Patricia Highsmith territory all along. Highly recommended!
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