I developed a slight penchant for a good ghost story as the days shortened towards the end of the decade. Most unlike me because one a year is usually plenty, not three in a row and counting, and when the theme comes up as a choice at the Endsleigh Salon, I'll be honest I'm the one who groans.
I was meeting a friend for lunch a few weeks ago, and reading a post-Booker success interview with Howard Jacobson while I was waiting for her to arrive in which he said if there was one thing he hated it was people saying a book was a real page turner. That had me looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was giving me the evil eye because, with apologies to Howard and everyone else who hates the expression, I know I use it a great deal. But some books just are page-turners aren't they, you're not meant to be digging deep for meaning or significance, you're meant to be enjoying a jolly good story, and I need them as much as I need the ponderous ones. To be fair I think Howard Jacobson was actually asking the reader to be more contemplative where his novels were concerned, in the hope that they would find that his books required regular rest and ponder breaks.
I meanwhile, having galloped through The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor (another cracking good read, excellent and recommended) with what must seem like indecent haste, have likewise done more of the same with Dark Matter, Michelle Paver's first adult ghost story after her best-selling children's series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. Nor have I read any of the Chronicles though I do have Wolf Brother and I may just embark on that now because there is much that I have admired about Michelle Paver's writing. Do they come recommended from anyone out there?
Now set a ghost story in the Arctic and you're home and dry as far as I can see, if a little cold and wet in the process but with every ingredient present and correct. Plenty to choose from, the constant darkness, perishing cold, snow-blindness, potential to get lost and run out of food, get trapped, attacked by hungry bears, spooked by the aurora borealis and the sounds of cracking icebergs and glaciers, but let's take nothing for granted, the mix will still need to be just right.
Michelle Paver chooses her era carefully in Dark Matter, 1937-8, war brewing in Europe, and an expedition that will spend a year in the remote and forbidding Arctic wastes, running a series of experiments. Bringing together a socially disparate group of young men immediately creates an imbalance and a tension that warrants some exploration and immediately had me wondering... would or could it be offset by the great leveller of the Arctic conditions?
The 'everyone's in the same boat' approach?
Inevitably each is going to bring his own to this team so I was interested to see who was best equipped to deal with the deprivation.
Narrated by Jack Miller, whose journal forms the basis of the book so a first person narrative which offers all that scope for a mind to go a-wandering on flights of fancy and imagination. But Jack is also the team member with most to lose, an impoverished upbringing that places him at a social disadvantage to his colleagues, Algie ( who likes killing things) Gus and Hugo (who don't) . Pride will be at stake if Jack shows any sign of fear or weakness but there is much to be afraid about and Michelle Paver slowly shores up those fears with a succession of incidents.
As the team come ashore at Gruhuken, and their ship bids them farewell for a year, it's not hard to imagine the sense of isolation and mild panic that might creep in, all coupled with a sinister but unspoken history to this god-forsaken outpost, echoes of the past which will become increasingly malevolent. When one by one Jack's team has to leave the camp and return to Norway, Jack by now vulnerable and increasingly obssessive is left alone to face down his sinister demons whilst clinging on the last vestiges of his pride.
There is only so long Jack can possibly tell himself everything is fine and herein lies Michelle Paver's skill, because as a reader Jack's anxieties became mine, his reasoning and self encouragement assuaging my own fears as if I was with him. There is a single moment of terrible indecision for Jack, a moment that could have helped him enormously and there was I almost shouting encouragement at the page as Jack's courage failed him and slowly his mental processes descended into ....
Enough of the plot but I hope you can see that it all has the essence of a great ghost story, one that rockets along and which I enjoyed tremendously, all those ingredients that had me turning those pages in a way that would probably have Howard Jacobson tutting.
Needs must etc.