Michelle Paver: Dark Matter – A Ghost Story (2010)

Dark Matter

It’s been raining for weeks and very cold. It feels a bit like autumn, which could explain why, all of a sudden, I was in the mood to read a ghost story.

Dark Matter starts in London in 1937. Jack’s life isn’t going the way he was hoping it would. When he is offered the opportunity to accompany an expedition to the Arctic he accepts gladly. It sounds like the chance of a lifetime. Together with four other men he is to leave London just before summer. They will overwinter in Spitsbergen, or, to be more precise, on the fictional island of Gruhuken. When they arrive they are amazed how much life there is in the Arctic in summer. So many animals, so much light. By the time they have set up their camp, only three men and a pack of huskies are left.

When the nights get longer and the daylight is about to disappear for a couple of months, Gus, one of the remaining men, has appendicitis and needs surgery. His friend Algie leaves Gruhuken with him. Jack stays behind on his own, he wants to save the expedition. The two men promise to be back in a couple of weeks. Although the idea of eternal darkness frightens Jack, and the fact that he senses a malevolent presence near the camp doesn’t make it any better, he still wants to prove himself and please Gus.

The novel is told in form of a diary. In writing it, Jack tries to make sense and stay sane in the long dark Arctic night. Allusions by the captain and a trapper confirm what he felt early on: there is a dark presence lurking outside. When he discovers Gus’ diary he learns that he and Algie saw something too.

Most ghost stories are deeply rooted in their setting which is one reason why I like them so much. Haunted houses are my favourites but extreme weather conditions and wild landscapes are ideal too. I must say, to set this story during the cold and endless nights of the Arctic winter was a terrific idea. While the haunting as such wasn’t that creepy, to image what it would be like to spend days and days all alone in the darkness was scary. There is an instance in which Jack gets lost in the night and I could feel the dread. He couldn’t just wait until morning, as the morning would be as dark as the night, so he stumbled around blindly, got panicky and almost gave up. I found it equally unsettling to imagine living inside of an illuminated cabin located in the middle of nowhere and to never know whether someone was outside looking in or not.

Michelle Paver has spent a few times in the Arctic, in summer and in winter, which is certainly the reason why the location is rendered so well, everything was captured in such vivid details.

The story has another layer, which is even darker than the setting or the haunting. In a few scenes Paver manages to say more about cruelty than many other authors I’ve read before. There were two scenes in which cruelty against animals was described, both of which I found very unsettling. The history of the ghost was equally sordid. In some ways you could also say that the cruelty and injustice of society was another main topic. Those who are well-off have all the chances in the world, while people like Jack who come from a humble family or very poor people like the trapper, will always be taken advantage of.

It was interesting to read this novel just after having watched The Wall. While The Wall isn’t a ghost story, the dread and menace are very similar. Nature and loneliness are seen as hostile but ultimately what is to be feared the most are other human beings.

Dark Matter is a wonderful book, I really loved it. It is scary in more than just a supernatural way and works on many levels. Anyone who loves a good ghost story, has an interest in the Arctic or a love for dogs would like this book.

I’m still in the mood for ghost stories and would love to read some more. Has anyone a suggestion? Do you have a favourite ghost story?

53 thoughts on “Michelle Paver: Dark Matter – A Ghost Story (2010)

  1. I think I would love this one. I love books that are in a diary format. Unfortunately I don’t have any suggestions. The past two mornings in London have felt more like autumn than spring or summer. And oddly enough, I’m in the mood for horror. I picked up The Shining from the library today.

    • It’s such odd weather. Today is the first warm day in weeks. The Rhine started to flood the sidewalk. A sight you hardly ever see.
      I have only read “Carrie” but would like to read the one or the other Stephen King. I’ve seen The Shining but I think I’ll read “Salem’s Lot” or “It”.

      • I read Salem’s Lot and really liked it. I saw the miniseries It and it scared the crap out of me–but I was much younger. I can’t believe the weather and all the flooding. For the past three days the sun has been out in London, but when the wind blows it reminds me of autumn. I keep expecting to see pumpkins on people’s doorsteps instead of summer flowers.

        • The birds had it rough. It’s quite sad really. So many young storks died because it is too cold and the swallows were starving as there were no insects.
          I think I saw that mini-series as well but can’t remember it. I also saw It – I think it was in two parts and really good.

  2. What a coincidence. A new friend on a writers’ website I’ve just joined, mentioned Dark Matter to me, as she thought it similar to a novel I wrote (Beyond The North Wind) which is not a ghost story, but a woman’s quest to find her missing husband, also set in Norway, with background dread and menace, from the elements and a pair of wolves…) I researched the book with a week spent in Bergen and the Jostedalsbreen National Park. Research is so important for making a book real!
    Also, loved your post about The Wall, very creep stuff, pitching man (or woman) against themselves and nature. Will try and see the film when I can.

    • That certainly is a coincidence. Your novel sounds very interesting. Being compared to Michelle Paver is high praise!
      The North is such a terrific setting for dark stories. Have you seen The Grey? I liked that quite a bit and the movie Far North based on Sara Maitland’s short story.

      • I’ve seen Far North, but not The Grey. As for other books set in the North, I loved the adult books of Tove Jansson: The Summer Book, The Winter Book, and most of all The True Deceiver. The Idea of North (Peter Davidson) is terrific, a survey of what “North” means. Also The Ice Museum (Joanna Kavenna) is a real life search for the mythic Thule or Hyperborea.

  3. Stephen King..for ghost stories or particularly horror fiction.

    This novel seems to be very interesting too

  4. Michelle Paver has always been popular in our family my children enjoyed her series set in the stone age;Wolf Brother,Spirit Walker etc.Then a couple of years ago there was,in the Observer/Telegraph,one of those features where people recommend books and lo and behold Michael Gove our revered or should that be reviled Minister for Education recommended Dark Matter.I sent a copy to my daughter who was by then in Uni. and bought the audiobook for our annual drive thru Ireland to holiday in Donegal.Again she’d come up trumps a most enjoyable tale.

    • I’m not surprised that the children’s series is good as well. My copy has an interesting interview with her and she says that she researches as much for her children’s books as she did for this and that there are a few similarities. She seems a very assured writer. I liked every aspect of the book.

  5. Setting a scary story during an arctic night seems like it would be so effective. The animal cruelty that you mention may be a bit too disturbing for me.

    Though not ghost stories, I find any collection of HP Lovecraft’s classic stories to be extremely atmospheric and usually frightening. He has so many good ones but I think my favorite is At the Mountains of Madness.

    • The instances of cruelty made sense, they were far from gratuitous but they did unsettle me.
      I used to love Lovecraft and just downloaded his complete stories. Thanks for the suggestion. I don’t remember that one. I’ll have to read it soon. I loved The Outsider.

  6. This looks like a wonderful book, Caroline! Thanks for writing about it. I love stories with long Arctic nights! This book makes me think of a book called ‘Cold Earth’ by Sarah Moss which I read a few years back and which had a similar theme – a few people doing research in the Arctic (Greenland) and there being a ghostly presence in the camp. Moss’ book had one of my favourite lines on the summer heat – “When I rule the world I’m going to set a maximum midday temperature at the point at which good chocolate makes a noise when you break it.” Have you read this book?

    When I read your review about the setting of the book and the long Arctic night, it made me think of the movies ’31 Days of Night’ and ‘Whiteout’. I wouldn’t want to live through a long night like that, but I would love to read books / watch movies which feature an Arctic night 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review. I will look for Paver’s book.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I hope you get to read it. I liked it a great deal.
      I’m so glad you mentioned Sarah Moss because I’ve got that a year ago. I need to read it soon. That’s a great line. 🙂
      I find the Arctic night extremely fascinating but I know I would not like it at all.
      Thanks for the movie suggestions. I haven’t seen them.

      • That is wonderful, Caroline! I hope you enjoy reading Sarah Moss’ book. I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. Happy reading! The two movies are popular Hollywood blockbusters, but involve long Arctic / Antarctic nights and so are quite interesting and wonderful. Hope you get to watch them and like them.

  7. This sounds scary as hell! I’ll pass though because of the animal business.

    I don’t think I have a favourite ghost story. Perhaps that’s something I should work on.

    • I was surprised nobody mentioned those cuelties against animals. It’s very brief but it shocked me and I can’t shake those images.
      I really enjoy a good ghost story. I’m not sure about horror, I haven’t read any horror since my early teens.

      • Yes I tend to pass if I sniff any cruel animal business. As you say, you can’t shake those images. I once saw a film with Depardieu wanting a horse steak, so he went to the abbatoir himself. Before I realized what was happening, there was a horse slaughter on the screen. A snuff film.

  8. I wouldn’t have thought that a ghost story set in the Arctic would be so scary but the way you’ve described it certainly makes it sound very compelling. I think I’d have to pass on this one though because of the animal cruelty you mentioned. I would have a hard time getting those images out of my head, which I suppose is the mark of a good writer, but it would sadden me for a long time.

    • It’s an amazing story. I’ve read books about the Inuit and have heard that people go mad in this long darkness but somehow couldn’t imagine what it would be like. Now I can.
      Those pictures are stuck in my mind.

  9. I can understand how this rain, rain, rain and endless rain brought you back to autumn and thus to ghost stories.

    Well, that’s not for me at all but I’m glad you had a great distraction from our meteorological misfortune.

  10. I really enjoyed Dark Matter too. I’m not good with absolute darkness at the best of times – I ‘see’ things that aren’t there – and this book really played on that.
    I don’t usually find ghost stories very frightening. I tried a collection of MR James short stories and gave up out of boredom. Then Susan Hill’s Woman in Black which wasn’t as scary as the film. The only ‘shivers down the spine’ read I can think of is a children’s book The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley. Set in an old isolated manor house in Norfolk with a hidden priest hole and strange noises and apparitions, it’s a proper old fashioned ghost story.
    One I’m looking forward to reading is John Boyne’s latest book The House on the Hill (I think). We recently went to a book event where he was reading from it – and the beginning was certainly setting the scene for plenty of scary moments.

    • Thanks so much for the recommendations. I had to order The Dead of Winter right away. It’s maybe not the right time to read it but if it continues to rain like this… Who knows? John Boyn’es books sounds very good too. i think it’s called A Haunted House but it’s not in paperback yet.
      I thought the scary part of Dark Matter was really related to the darkness and not so much to the ghost. the idea to live in such drakness for so long and alone really creeps me out.
      MR James was a bit tame. I think I’ve read The Small Hand before I read The Woman in Black and found it a bit scarier. The movie however was very well done.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this when I read it. I’m not that big a reader of ghost stories, simply because I think they’re really hard to do well. Some of du Maurier’s are properly scary, though. I loved Sarah Water’s novel, The Little Stranger, and a friend just gave me a copy of M. R. James, who is the classic in this genre, I understand. I’m hoping to dip into them soon.

    • I was a bit disappointed by M.R; James. I didn0t find what I have read so far very scary but I’d have to retunr to him and read him properly.
      It’s very different to do well, I agree. Especially if you don’t want to write something too gruesome.
      Paver did a great job with the setting.
      I’ll have to read The Little Stranger soon.

  12. I liked this as well–so very atmospheric and totally forbidding. There is something about the bleakness and loneliness of the setting that makes it a perfect place to set a ghost story! I have gotten a copy of The Wall by the way and hope to start it soon! If you like ghost stories you might put Peter Straub’s Ghost Story on your list–I thought it was well done, too, when I read it last year. And I ditto Litlove’s suggestion of The Little Stranger–maybe my favorite of Sarah Waters’ books!–Oops now I see you have read it already… 🙂

    • Thanks for the suggestions. I was thinking about the Straub as well. I haven’t read the Little STranger yet but I’ve got it already. 🙂
      I hope you will like The Wall. I thought it was an amazing book.

  13. While reading this, all I can think about is….why do people want to stay in the arctic. I would freeze to death if I visit that place 😉

    Anyway…I love ghost story and this sounds good. I never read ghost story taken place in such place.

    My favorite ghost story is still The Shining by Stephen King…there were moments where I felt scared unlike when reading other ghost story.

    • I have a friend who went to the Arctic twice. I never got that. I’m sure it’s fascinating and all but the cold…. Not for me.
      It’s an excellent setting for a ghost story though.
      Ah, yes, The Shining. I’ll get to Stephen King this year but I’m still not surr which book I’ll read first.

      • the coldest temp I have ever experienced is 16 degree Celsius, can’t even imagine how cold is under zero…brrr .

        If you are still in ghostly mood, try The Shining…but if you want thinner book…hmmm…Carrie is the thinnest book I have ever read from him. I have a feeling you will like 11/22/63 (reviewing it right now) but it’s very thick.

        • Carrie is the only one I’ve read. I’m llooking forward to your review. I think I would like it.
          I’m not sure which is the coldest I have experineced. I suppose – 15°C. That was pretty bad. We have that in windet occasionally but not too often.

  14. I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, so I’ll check this out. The setting sounds marvellous, and I can see how the cruelty to animals would make it additionally disturbing (which in this sort of tale is a good thing, provided it’s not gratuitous and it doesn’t sound like it is).

    King for me is an efficient writer. Great ideas but slightly leaden prose. Still fun though, but not a remotely literary read. I liked Salem’s Lot too, and Firestarter, and several others but it was a long time ago. Also, I second the comment on thickness. He’s not a concise writer.

    There’s a review of Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth at mine by the way. I liked it, but I’ve noticed her second novel and her non-fiction work cover extremely similar ground which makes me wonder as to her range. Still, Cold Earth is good and ultimately it’s the quality rather than the breadth that matters in a writer.

    MR James is still perhaps the best ghost story writer, but then he almost defines the genre, in English anyway. I see you didn’t take to him, which is a shame but so it goes. Did you read Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad? and the Count Magnus one? If you didn’t take to those he’s probably not your writer if that makes sense.

    • If you like ghost stories, I’m pretty sure you’d like this. It’s eerie in many different ways.
      The cruelty isn’t gratuitous and very brief but it enhanced the meaning. I think the setting is done amazingly well.
      I’ll have to read your Sarah Moss review. I’ve got the book and forgot about it. Some writers return to the same ground over and over.
      I’m a bit prejudiced when it comes to Stephen King but recently I saw him recommended by more than one writer, critics and enthusiastic readers and I guess there must be more to him.
      My favourite novels tend to be rather shorter but there is always an exception.
      I’m in a vampire mood these days. I recently saw a list of books on the guardian and they all sounded excellent. Salem’s Lot was among them too.
      I used to really love Poe and Lovecraft and when I read MR James I found him a bit tame but I’ve only read a few. Not the two you mention though, so there is still a possibility. Thanks for the suggestions.

      • King is a writer you read for the plot and ideas, not remotely for the prose. If you enter with that in mind you might be fine (though I don’t promise it – I don’t read him anymore because I find the books too long and the prose a bit too leaden).

        Salem’s Lot does have some great imagery. Just not great prose.

        Poe and Lovecraft would make James seem a bit tame I think, but equally it sounds like you’ve missed the best James. Try Oh Whistle, that’s probably his best. Here’s an extext of it: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/owhistle.htm

        • I always find one should make a distinction between writers and storytellers and King is possibly more of a storyteller. Not a bad thing per se. I don’t enjoy long books which is one reason why I did stay away from him. When I was in my teens I had no patience for story telling att all. It’s rather now that I appreciate a well plotted and well strcutured book.
          I think I’ll read Salem’s Lot.
          And try a few MR James stories. Thanks for the link.

  15. Like you, I thought this was a wonderfully evocative novel which had the right amount of creepiness not just in the ghost but also in the setting. I just loved everything about it. I’m also on the hunt for some ghost stories – I read the The Woman in Black a few years ago which didn’t scare me all that much but I hear The Haunting of Hill House is pretty frightening. One book that did scare me was Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.

    • I found it very perfect too. She’s a very experienced writer. I haven’t read TheHaunting of Hill House but I saw the movie which isn’t that scary.
      The Woman in Blakc is creepier as a movie.
      I’ve heard about Joe Hill but isn’t he more of a horror than a ghost story writer? But thanks for the suggestion.

  16. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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