A truly creepy ghost story

“I felt its will coming at me in waves. Intense, unwavering, malign. Such malevolence. No mercy. No humanity. It belonged to the dark beyond humanity. It was rage without end. A black tide drowning.”

I became hooked on ghost stories at quite an early age. But my introduction to M.R. James didn’t come until I was aged around 13, via a copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary loaned to me by a friend. Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook creeped me out fairly thoroughly, but very few stories since then have managed that feat. (Some of William Hope Hodgson’s, for instance: it MAY be coincidence that these two writers have been the biggest influences on my own ghost story writing!) Until last week, in fact, when I read a book recommended by that very same friend. The book is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

As a hothouse plant, I hate long cold winter nights, ice, snow, darkness. They are primal fears, of course, for it really isn’t very long in terms of history since humans were unable to combat those things. So Paver taps into a very ancient terror in setting Dark Matter in the long dark of the Arctic winter, where Something lurks, putting out its ominous head— its round, wet malign head— unobtrusively at first, until it holds center stage… and then comes back for an unexpected and devastating curtain call.

The year is 1937 and Jack Miller, an ordinary young man with a large chip on his shoulder, joins an Arctic expedition to what turns out to be a haunted site named Gruhuken. Accidents and illness contrive to isolate him, and he becomes increasingly aware of not being alone in the perpetual night. His husky dogs disappear (save one), and he realizes that the figure he has glimpsed can open doors…

This is not the climax, nor is the mysterious fire that destroys the expedition’s lodgings; on the contrary the true horror is low-key, almost thrown away, just as the reader is breathing a sigh of relief. And there’s more, implied not explicit (as many of the best horrors are), years later in the Caribbean, where Miller has ended up: However far Jamaica may be from Greenland, the same sea laps its shore, and the same things tap into it, like a supernatural internet.

Paver’s writing is clean and beautiful and spare, her descriptions vivid; not a word is wasted. This is her first book for adults. I hope she writes many, many more.

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