I was heretofore unaware of Michelle Paver’s existence at all; not only is she a British writer (who, as an American, I am ever so slightly less likely to discover), but her sole output appears to have been novels for children. It was, anyway, until Dark Matter, her first foray into “adult” subject matter, and which seems to have garnered unanimous praise and acclaim as a genuinely scary “ghost story”, whatever that means anymore.
I’ve never been a fan of horror movies; most fall prey to excesses of gore that seek to shock instead of frighten, and/or a hamfisted boogieman approach where murderous phantasms and/or psychotic masked killers are hidden in dark alcoves and presaged by ominous music1. In short, the genre doesn’t appear to have progressed much from the Bruce Coville‘s books of scary stories2, though admittedly it’s a distinct downward turn from the capable hands of the old masters like Hitchcock.
But this is all apart from the point; I’m no connoisseur of ghost stories, having little of the genre under my belt. Nor, I suppose, is it even particularly productive to mention what I perceive that the difference between a “horror” story and a “ghost” story, or a “scary” story, which is that the latter tends to be pornographic3 rather than truly frightening. For what little difference it makes, Paver’s Dark Matter is very much a suspense thriller, or a campfire story, rather than an entrail-ripping or hook-handed murder spree. This is much to her credit, since the latter might just be the very nadir of the art4, but the former, when done right, is simultaneously chilling and moving. Paver’s particular implementation, contrary to popular review, falls somewhere in the middle of frightening and blandly mediocre.
The year is 1937, and war lingers on the horizon like a cloud of smoke. Young Jack Miller is a desperately poor young Briton, disappointed with his dead-end life and half-heartedly contemplating suicide, who is invited along an an expedition into the Arctic Circle to chart weather patterns or some such academic drudgery. Though cripplingly self-conscious about his poverty and utter decrepitude, Jack views this as an opportunity to turn his life around (his degree is physics being a non-starter), and so in short order his finds himself en route to a desolate bay called Gruhuken, in the Spitsbergen region of Norway, subject to the long periods of 24-hour sunlight and 24-hour darkness which typify the Arctic Circle. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to note that by the time the adventurers are bunked, their party has been whittled down from five to just three: Jack, the protagonist of sorts; Algie (Algernon), a somewhat porcine and callous fellow whom Jack dislikes himself; and finally Gus, the beaming Anglo-Saxon ideal, a young man of wealth, privilege, and education, with whom Jack ultimately falls in love.
This last fact should give some indication that the machinations of Dark Matter are much more psychological than physical, though the latter admittedly exist in no small number, the Arctic being what it is. This is also one of the moments when Paver reveals her history as a writer of books for children: the plot of Dark Matter seems as much about the internal growth/torment/conflict of a young man as it is about ghosts or terror, and not in an “existential angst” kind of way, but a Jerry-Spinelli-Oh-Like-This-Person kind of way which was telegraphed almost from the very beginning. I get the certain sense that Jack, despite being a grown adult, is still given the mental processes of a young adult rather than the twenty-something man he is; still in the process of finding himself, and prone to adolescent pusillanimity and confusion. What’s more, I get the feeling that Paver was unintentionally writing once more for a young adult audience, narrating the terrors of sexual uncertainty and young existential angst rather than the material (adult) concerns of verifiable Psychokinetic Activity (to borrow a phrase from Ghostbusters).
The Arctic Circle is a desolate place which can kill an unprepared person in minutes; for large swathes of the calendar year, it knows no sunlight whatsoever, existing in a permanent, snow-bound darkness that seems pulled from the viscera of a nightmare. It seems an artificial environment, wherein the normal processes of society can’t happen, or can’t happen correctly, and normal social and ethical impulses become dampened with loneliness and the loss of an internal clock. Eventually, Jack is left all alone in the snow-bounded cabin on a godforsaken bay during a prolonged stretch of continual darkness5.
The question begged by Paver’s novel is this: is Gruhuken really haunted (by the ghost of a murdered trapper), or is the terror entirely a product of Jack’s dark-dizzied mind? Paver appears to attempt a standard ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying the presence of an authentic haunting, and therefore leaving it up to the reader to decide; however, the language and events appear to be relatively unambiguous in asserting that in fact Gruhuken is haunted by some otherwordly presence, and that it in no small way responsible for the disastrous events of the book. Nonetheless, questions of actual-vs.-psychological haunting ultimately play second fiddle to the character drama unfolding before our eyes. It reminds me in no small way of Golding’s Lord of the Flies; that is, how young people react in a social vacuum, and just how disastrous that scenario can become.
So, at long last: is it terrifying? No. It is it even particularly chilling (figuratively speaking)? I can’t admit to it being so. Dark Matter ultimately ends up being more an allegory for the existential angst of a young person’s transitional years than about a real ectoplasmic ghost. That being said, is the brutal cold and suffocating dark of the lonely arctic a sufficient metaphor for the purgatory of uncertain adolescence? Yes, and in fact I think it’s more successful than most of the literal interpretations that have come before it. As a ghost story, it’s mediocre; as a character drama and an allegory, I think it becomes sufficiently timeless and particularly poignant.
- Recent, purposely ironic alternative: have a dark alcove and ominous music result in a false alarm, followed immediately by a real slaughter once the audience has let its guard down.[↩]
- Side note: much more terrifying series for children is Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark[↩]
- I’m using the non-sexual sense here[↩]
- The new trend of “gore porn”, e.g. Eli Roth’s Hostel, whose modern sense seems to have been co-opted via a complete misunderstanding of Bret Easton’s Ellis’ American Psycho[↩]
- There’s no mention of just how long the “midnight sun” is at Gruhuken/Spitsbergen, but it can last as long as 186 days at the poles, and I’m given to understand that it lasts from approximately June-September in real-life Spitsbergen.[↩]