When you think about it, the Arctic is the perfect setting for a horror story: it’s pitch dark for half the year, it’s isolated, and just about everything out there will try and kill you.
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter tells the story of an expedition to the Arctic island of Svalbard. The narrator, Jack Miller, jumps at the chance to prove himself by joining a pack of Oxford graduates on their adventure north, to Gruhuken Bay, despite his worries about the class divide. The expedition is struck by bad luck from the outset, and the misfortunes pile up until every member of the team is forced to leave, leaving Jack on his own to mind the camp and keep the mission going. As if the cold and the darkness wasn’t enough, Jack has to face the possibility that Gruhuken isn’t as abandoned as he thought.
Dark Matter is a superb psychological horror story, focusing consistently on Jack’s worsening mental state. As Jack’s situation deteriorates, there is a growing sense that there must be something out there, some malevolent presence that wishes him harm. It’s written in the best tradition of psychological horror, ratcheting up the tension that something might happen without ever deflating it by showing the monster in the flesh. Indeed, It’s left ambiguous exactly how much of the events that are going on is real and how much is going on in Jack’s imagination.
I read Dark Matter over the course of a single weekend last year, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a traditional ghost story, full of ignored warnings and the gradual reveal of buried secrets, but the Arctic setting makes it feel fresh and original. A word of advice, though: make sure you wrap up warm and keep a dog nearby if you have one…
I’d also recommend Paver’s follow-up novel, Thin Air, which has a similar premise and style but is based on a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas that left me dizzy with vertigo.