Our Book Group choice to discuss this week as our themed ‘Horror/Ghost story’ selection was Michelle Paver’s first adult novel – Dark Matter – subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’. Her second novel, Thin Air – also ‘A Ghost Story’, was published recently too, so I’ll combine thoughts about the two into one post.
Firstly, Dark Matter. Published in 2010 to great acclaim, this novel is a traditional literary ghost story with an irresistible setting. We read Jack’s diaries from 1937:
I’m twenty-eight years old and I hate my life. I never have the time or the energy to work out how to change it. On Sundays I trail round a museum to keep warm, or lose myself in a library book, or fiddle with the wireless. But Monday’s already looming. And always I’ve got this panicky feeling inside, because I know I’m getting nowhere, just keeping myself alive.
When offered the chance to join a weather research expedition to the Arctic as wireless operator, Jack, overqualified for his present job being a grammar school boy with a degree, jumps at it. His four colleagues are all posh Oxbridge chaps and Jack isn’t sure he’ll fit in, but agrees to go.
They set off for Norway where they’ll join a ship which’ll take them, their supplies and a team of huskies to Gruhukken, the remote bay where they’ll be based for the year. Even before they get there, their numbers are reduced by one, but they soldier on. Mr Eriksson, the ship’s captain, urges them not to stay at Gruhukken Bay but won’t tell them why. As you might guess, there are malevolent ghosts abroad who will do their best to drive the men away – and that’s all I can say about the plot without spoiling it.
Thin Air, published this October, is another traditional ghost story.
It’s 1935 and a mismatched band of mountain climbers are planning to climb the third highest peak in the Himalaya, Kangchenjunga. They will go via the treacherous route that has previously claimed many lives, including several men in an ill-fated expedition in 1907. No-one has yet reached the summit of this mountain, called ‘Big Stone’ by the superstitious Sherpas.
Our narrator is Stephen, a doctor and alpinist who is a late replacement, joining his bold brother Kits and the rest of the team including Cedric the dog. It’s clear from the start that there will be sibling rivalry between them, particularly on Kits’ part. Add in the mountain’s legends and climb history and we’re set for a tense adventure even before they make base camp and experience the effects of oxygen deprivation. Could everything that happens afterwards be the effects of altitude sickness and the thin air? Or are there really ghosts?
As Charles Tennant, one of the survivors of the 1907 climb says to Kit before they leave for the trek to base camp:
‘It’ll kill you if it can,’ he says betwen his teeth. ‘Oh yes. You have no idea…’
Once more, he glances at the photograph – and recoils with that strange, convulsive shudder.
And now I’m sure of it. He’s frightened. Charles Tennant, one of the toughest mountaineers who ever lived, is frightened of that mountain.
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I thoroughly enjoyed both novels, perhaps preferring Thin Air over Dark Matter. Both can be read in one session which is the best way, for the tension ratchets up notch by notch until it’s almost unbearable by the novels’ climaxes.
However, both are essentially the same book, just set in different locations in the mid 1930s: an outsider joins an expedition, they are warned not to go as previous trips failed. They go anyway and the team is whittled down one by one by supernatural forces. Someone survives, or diaries are found to tell the story.
That said, our book group all devoured Dark Matter. We thought the characters were excellent, and Jack’s increasing sense of isolation and loneliness was well done. We thought it was touching that he was doing it for Gus, the team leader, but also to prove that he was as good, if not a better man than the others.
Apart from the ghost story elements, there is a real sense of adventure to both these novels, Having recently read Eric Newby’s memoir, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush for book group earlier in the year, I could see the similarities between all these gentlemen adventurers. Paver’s mountaineers were better climbers than Newby and Carless though – I particularly enjoyed the climbing scenes on the mountains in Stephen’s company though.
These novels may follow a formula – but that doesn’t stop them being creepy enough to hook you into their darkness. Both great reads.
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Dark Matter (9/10) – own copy – Buy at Amazon UK
Thin Air (10/10) – review copy – Buy at Amazon UK