Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter is an account of a fictional scientific expedition to a remote area of the Arctic in 1937. The story follows Jack Miller’s experiences that occur during the natural phenomena: ‘the midnight sun’. The narrative unfolds in an epistolary form leading the reader through a sequence of supernatural events to reveal the untameable presence attached to the setting.
Is it scary?
Paver’s text neatly fits the specifications of the typical ghost story. Its primary purpose is to create tension, to disturb the ready. Paver manages to achieve this through her great use of short sentences during moments of tension. The concise yet abrupt sentence structure, which produces obtrusive pauses, seems to reoccur more frequently as the novel progresses; this seems to perpetuate the growing stillness, the deafening silence and mental instability that creep up on the protagonist during his isolation.
Paver also incorporates an introductory letter into her novel, penned by one of the book’s characters – Algie – which immediately conjures a foreboding terror and creates a sense of realism within the text. The use of setting also increases the tension within Dark Matter. Gruhuken – an arctic location that Paver admits does not exist – is completely desolate and isolated from civilisation producing helplessness throughout the entire narrative.
The literary devices used may be perceived as clichéd and somewhat unoriginal, yet Paver’s writing is still effective in producing the uncanny of a presence ‘half seen at the edge’ of human understanding.
Man versus Nature
Human understanding is questioned throughout the novel. Gruhuken is a place where humanity is inferior to Nature – Jack is often shown as feeling irrelevant to his surroundings. Dark Matter may be a commentary on the current problems of global warming and deforestation as it seems to explore Man’s endless desire to dominate Nature and the destructive consequences of this. Paver presents an uncontrollable madness inherent in Gruhuken – the cracking of the ice ‘sounds like it’s talking to itself’ as a result of its overwhelming sublimity.
Measuring sanity in hours
The Arctic exposes a weakness of humanity: our dependence upon routine, order and control. This is evident in Jack’s attachment to the alarm clock and Jack’s mental deterioration after his means of measuring time is destroyed: ‘It [the clock] broke. Something inside me broke, too’. The protagonist slips into madness during the constant darkness, which leaves open the possibility that perhaps all of the supernatural occurrences were self-inflicted. Was it in fact Jack who caused the fire in his cabin? Paver’s writing raises this question without any satisfactory resolution. Perhaps the text is a warning to humanity: that we will inevitably destroy ourselves if we continue to exploit and damage the Earth.
Paver’s Dark Matter is an artefact of the past, as it is set in 1937. The ghostly presence in Gruhuken is portrayed as if it too is an artefact of the past breaking through into the present. During the story, the bear baiting post becomes a physical reminder that is symbolic of the horrors from the past resonating into the present. Paver creatively uses the endless nights of the Arctic to create an ambiguity between night and day until, by the climax of the novel, linear time has become deconstructed to such a degree that the past begins to reverberate and exist during the present. As discussed previously, the presence of measurable, linear time seems to be the anchor of each character’s sanity and the loss of this comfort reveals the ease of which anyone can slip into madness. Paver’s depiction of the potential madness within anyone – given the circumstances – is possibly the most disturbing and ghastly aspect of her book. To suggest that everyone is susceptible to the same behaviour as the protagonist is truly unsettling and why this story is successful at disturbing its reader.
Paver does not reinvent the ghost story, nor does she desire to breathe any life into this genre. Dark Matter thrives off of the deadness, the nothingness, and successfully creates an inevitable terror expected by the reader because of the conventions it strictly adheres to. The suggestion – yet refusal to provide confirmation – that the supernatural events are purely a result of the protagonist’s psychological struggle make this ghost story feel as if it could happen to anyone. Through the ambiguity that creeps into the narrative and, in the end, possesses it, Paver is able to create believable ghosts.
Review by Matthew Tenwick