By Michelle Paver
Published by Orion, 2010.
Award winning children’s author Michelle Paver has turned her attention away from the prehistory of The Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness series to something much darker, a ghost story. “I didn’t tell anyone except my agent that I was writing a ghost story” she says in a fascinating article on her website (here). The opportunity to write without a deadline meant she could refine the text over time and at the right time. “I felt it was important to get back into the rewrite at the time when the nights were lengthening and winter was coming on, because this is the proper time for ghost stories”, it’s clear that technique has had a major effect on the atmosphere of the story.
It’s 1937 and against a background of impending war, a group of Oxbridge graduates are planning a scientific expedition to Spitsbergen in the high arctic, “halfway between Norway and the pole”. They are joined by the distinctly lower class Jack Miller, who despite his difficult background is determined to prove himself as a worthy scientist. Eventually after months of planning the group make their way to the deserted mining village of Gruhuken (despite advice that this area is unsuitable as a camp, have these folk never seen Scooby Doo). The vastness and wildness of the area is awe inspiring, “it made humanity irrelevant”.
Things are proceeding well and Jack has even managed to bond with at least one of his team mates, Gus until a series of incidents conspire to leave Jack alone in the camp. Alone, that is if you don’t include the sleddogs and a ghostly figure which seems to appear with increasing frequency. Not only that but Jack has been left alone just as the everlasting darkness of an arctic winter (the “dark time”) sets in. “Only you in this cabin and beyond it the dark” Jack tells himself.
The book is as much about psychological terror as supernatural terror. Indeed the supernatural threat appears to be real (as it’s observed by multiple witnesses) but as it’s only ever glimpsed through the veil of darkness, both physical and psychological, it is never truly revealed or made real. This gives the tale an M. R. James feel as the implied threat begins to dominate the characters actions without losing any of it’s power or intensity which may have followed its revelation.
The book is also very much about relationships. Gus and Jack in particular resolve their very different backgrounds to form a close bond which in Jack’s case takes the form of unrequited love. Jack also forms a close bond with one of the sled dogs who helps maintains Jack’s grip on reality when it seems he may be losing it. It’s also a book about the landscape itself. This is a place which dominates man till he becomes insignificant. The darkness erodes the senses and the vastness is incomprehensible. When Jack gets lost in the dark at one point the scene becomes both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time.
Michelle Paver has created a great ghost story without really stretching the boundaries of the genre to any great extent. The intricate and well researched historical detail, a solid plot and an excellent cast of characters satisfy but more importantly the book works as a chilling exploration of the landscape not only of the Arctic wilderness but also of the human mind.
Rating 4 out of 5