I have discovered the single best setting for a ghost story: winter above the Arctic Circle. Vast, empty, cold, and dark.
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter spends most of its time describing this setting. But don’t worry about getting bored. One moment you’re humming along with beautiful images of water, ice, light, mountains, and sky; then suddenly, although nothing’s changed, you find yourself afraid. The water, somehow, is terrifying. The alien light is terrifying. The distant mountains are terrifying. You realize this was a place humans were never meant to be. A place where everything, even in its beauty, means death.
Yes, even something as inanimate and harmless as a log.
The setting does all the heavy lifting here. Paver just gives you an occasional nudge—a reminder, as if you even needed one, that this is indeed a ghost story. And it’s a terrifying one.
Dark Matter was almost perfect for me, but it suffered a rather severe stumble near the end. Not from a story issue, but a technical one. The entire book is written in epistolary format. It opens with a letter, and the greater bulk of it is a journal. But then, for one chapter, it breaks from the format, and you experience the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist. Once the climax is over, back to a journal.
There’s nothing wrong with the way the climax is written. It’s riveting, it’s scary, and it may very well have been the best way for Paver to tell that part of the story. But it’s the only part of the entire book that isn’t a written record. According to the premise set up so far, there’s no way I should be privy to any of the information given in this chapter, and that’s the problem. Just when it was most important for me to be fully immersed, the format change yanked me back out and reminded me that this was just a piece of fiction.
Was first-person present-tense the most effective way to tell the climax? Probably. I just don’t see why Paver couldn’t have used it for the entire book (the epistolary format, while fun, certainly wasn’t necessary for all the other chapters), rather than just that one scene.
Aspiring writers, please don’t do this. Don’t pull me out of the story. Follow the rules you set up—and if it turns out the rules don’t work for you, replace them with new ones. But don’t break your own rules just because it’s convenient for you. If you want to write a “found footage” story, everything has to be footage that is somehow findable. Heat-of-the-moment thoughts that the protagonist never bothered to write down are not that.
OK. I hit on that pretty hard. It is a serious problem with the book, but it’s only one chapter. Everything else leading up to it is so good, I can forgive one chapter.
To end on a positive note (because I really did like this book, honest!), there was a sense of weird magic to this story. I felt simultaneously drawn to visit the far north and repulsed. I wanted to experience the alien beauty, and at the same time I never wanted to set one foot on those frozen shores. Awe and terror.
And cruelty. The ghost story that rests over top of the scenery is disturbing. Paver doesn’t belabor the details. Just a few strong suggestions that are enough to make your stomach turn.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go erect a bear post outside my window…