Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is a magnificently crafted horror novel – the kind that is delightfully unsettling to read. While there is little blood and gore, and not much running and screaming, Dark Matter offers an eminently creepy and malicious atmosphere and a pervasive sense of dread. What’s not to love about that?
The bones of the story are as follows:
1937, London: Twenty-eight year old Jack, lonely and poor, joins an expedition to the cold, desolate Svalbard, intending to spend a year at the remote Gruhuken. As winter approaches, his companions are forced to drop out of the expedition, one by one. Jack, determined to prove himself and complete the task set out before them, elects to stay.
However, as the sun falls below the horizon, not to return until spring, the isolated Jack soon begins suspecting that he is not alone. There is something out there in the dark.
Dark Matter is, as its subtitle suggests, a ghost story at heart. But it is decidedly more than your run-of-the-mill spectre that Paver invokes. The story combines folklore and superstition with the 20th century, showing that the old frights still rule in the abandoned places of the world. This is a centuries-old horror – a product of coastal fishing communities and their well-founded fear of what may lurk in the dark sea. This added dimension is delightful.
The story plays with isolation and darkness, contrasted deftly by Jack’s optimism and hopefulness at the onset of his journey. Jack’s need to prove himself, to belong, is relatable and almost heartbreaking, and his increasing desperation all the more disquieting as a consequence. This is not an “oh no, the lights went out – let’s explore the basement” story. Jack is careful, capable, rational and not easily scared, and that is what makes the approaching terror all the more horrifying.