Dark Matter is a ghost story. It’s not often I’m brave enough to immerse myself in the dark and lonely and quiet world of a ghost story but there was something special about Dark Matter that appealed and it has a lot to do with its setting – the 1930s’ Arctic wilderness. I’ve always been attracted to novels set in wide open expanses of cold country – most recently The Snow Child and Dead Men – they lend themselves perfectly to mysteries, chills and spiritual journeys. The isolation and emptiness of the landscape are compounded by months of night, illuminated only by twisting dancing lights of colour. All well and good, and so beautiful, in theory, but what if you were on your own and then you began to realise that you weren’t on your own after all? What would you do? Would you go mad?
On the eve of the second world war, Jack Miller joins Algernon Carlisle and Gus Balfour on a scientific expedition to Gruhuken, a hut and nothing else on a remote island to the north of Norway. Miller, a middle class office clerk, a failure in his own eyes, wants to belong and he is seduced by the confidence of upper class and wealthy Gus and Algie. The journey is an escape from drudgery and, despite ominous portents before they even leave London, Jack longs for Gruhuken. Nothing can dent his optimism, not even the reluctance of their ship’s captain Mr Eriksson to set just one foot on the shore. Sometimes, you need to listen.
When the expedition arrives on base it is still midsummer. The light is never ending. Birds nest. The men settle in their hut while the dogs get used to their own. A few feet from the entrance is the bear post; a post from which trackers would hang animal remains to attract polar bears for hunting. Finally, Eriksson and his crew leave. Jack, Gus and Algie are on their own and before long the sun begins to disappear below the horizon for longer and longer each night until finally it never appears at all. The Arctic Winter fastens its grip on the land. This coincides, unfortunately for Jack, with the evacuation of Gus and Algie from the base in a medical emergency. Jack is on his own and it’s not just his imagination that he has to cope with.
The novel takes the form of a journal written by Jack, interspersed with images of Arctic scenes. On his own, learning to know the dogs, depending on one in particular, Jack relies on us to listen to him. When he stares out of the window and sees things he shouldn’t see but want to be seen, we hide out of sight from the glass, willing him not to look and deploring his obsession with what is happening outside, especially around the bear post. The Arctic Winter is a dangerous environment. You wouldn’t want to go outside at the best of times. But Jack is determined to continue his scientific experiments, to validate the expedition, fighting against his own fears, the echoes of the past, the rar (‘the strangeness’) and the Ishavet kaller (‘the Arctic calls’).
Dark Matters is a spooky read for sure. Jack is a brave man, driven to prove his worth to Gus and Algie even when terrified to the extreme. He will not abandon his post. His journal entries become increasingly frightened. He doesn’t give in to it easily. He grasps at straws of hope. This serves to make the story all the more frightening.
Other themes are touched on here – the end of the golden days of rich exploration as the second world war looms, the murky human past of the Arctic, even the nature of love. All set within a beautifully evocative ice night.
I had questions about the shakiness of the journal format in places, especially at the end, but otherwise Dark Matter places us firmly within the increasingly frightened mind of a man on his own in the most remote and darkest of environments. It’s a short novel and so, like me, it’s possible that you may read it all in one sitting, ideally during a dark and stormy autumnal or wintry night. A book like this is made for nights like that.