Well, this review was meant to be up for Halloween, but my computer decided to kick the bucket. I now have a new one which was a few years overdue anyways. The end result is that I’m back. I read a shorter Ghost Story called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. When it comes to horror my preference is strong characters in a supernatural setting. I went into this book blind; never heard of it. Let’s get going.
This story takes place in 1937 within a gloomy Britain which at this time is filled with rumors of war coming. Enter the journal of Jack Miller; a specialist wireless operator who works a menial dead end job. As he drops further into poverty and merely going through the motions, he has a chance to join an arctic expedition to Gruhuken on the northeast coast of Svalbard. It wasn’t long ago these lands were unclaimed with people looking for fortunes there. Now Gruhuken is oddly vacant of human life trying to find some way to make wealth there. Jack goes on this journey of course and this book is his journal Jack documents along the way.
This story starts off with so much excitement and hope then slowly gives a feeling of creeping dread. Michelle must have done some research or had experience in how it would be to live in the arctic in 1937. I believed this could be a real journal. It was interesting to get a real feeling of traveling to and surviving in such a cold and eventually dark desolate place. The party starts off with 5 people, but bad luck causes only 3 to actually make it to gruhuken and start the expedition. I’m sure there’s no ill omen in this right? I will say they did bring sled dogs with them so that actually pushed back some of the dread I was feeling. When it comes to ghosts, dogs are a great warning.
The first sign something may be wrong is the Swedish captain tries to talk them out of going to Gruhuken and to land their expedition somewhere else. When this doesn’t work he tries to claim he wasn’t planning on going that far to drop them off. The man is clearly trying to look out for these scholarly Englishmen with no idea of the lands they are going to. Of course eventually they talk him into bringing them to their destination. His uneasy crew helps them set up a cabin then flee from there as fast as possible. The expedition is of course ill fated or else this book would just be a science journal of the arctic.
Journal formats can be quite tricky to write. It needs to feel natural and you need to make the reader believe the writer knows how to wield words to fascinate us. Michelle is quite good at setting up Jack as an educated man of words despite his low standing in life and the prose feel natural. Jack makes the world around him feel wondrous, dangerous, beautiful, and deadly as the story unfolds. I believe this man could be writing like this as it goes from a mission of science to a mystery of what is happening to the expedition. I do not want to spoil too much, but something doesn’t want other people on these lands; not even for science.
I cannot say this book felt like it did anything really new, but it did everything exceptionally well. I was invested in Jack’s journey and what his fate would be. There is definitely a point in the book when you really are not sure how the story will end. It certainly did not go the way I thought. The slow building of dread I thought could use a bit more payoff, but overall I was satisfied with the mystery of this land. Jack could have avoided much of what happens with different decisions, but his decisions made sense in the long run. It was not contrived to keep the story going. In fact it seemed realistic.
Overall I feel like Michelle nailed the gloomy British ghost story in journal form. I was marveled by her attention to detail and making the world around Jack feel alive. The few characters in the story also felt distinct and real from Jack’s PoV. Even the sled dogs felt organic and believable in how Jack viewed their behavior. It would certainly take a lot of guts to go out in the arctic even nowadays not to mention in 1937. Jack definitely was stupidly brave. It was a fascinating shorter read in the world of ghost stories.