There’s nothing like a bit of horror and creepiness to get you through the winter months so Dark Matter (2010) by Michelle Paver seemed the ideal reading material for a dreary British January. Paver’s novel (nominated for The Shirley Jackson Award) is set in 1937 and centres on Jack, a working class boy who’s down on his luck and has lost his dream of becoming a world class physicist. This is because Jack is POOR. However, hope lands in the shape of some Oxbridge chaps, all with names like Teddy and Algie and Gus. They are RICH. We know this because they say things like “grand” instead of “okay”.
In an echo of Frankenstein and the scientific pursuits of Walton, the lads all set off on an expedition to the Arctic and to what is surely a fruitful environment for any spooky story - 24 hour darkness. And it is quite creepy. You get a real sense of claustrophobia as time runs out and the daylight disappears, plus we know that something unwholesome is lurking around, biding its time.
But that’s all you get really. A sort of squelchy, cold creepiness. As soon as Jack sees the old bear baiting pole I guessed what it had been used for. And there are so many missed opportunities. What could have been a slow, menacing possession was just a series of vaguely sinister events. The “revelation” barely caused me to blink (or shudder).
I think it’s the voice I find most unconvincing. Paver narrates most of the story through Jack’s journal and it’s here that it falls apart a bit. I know we’ve established Jack is POOR, but his language veers between clichéd examples of ’30s slang and childishly simple sentences. Is this Jack or Paver? Perhaps Paver hasn’t made the jump from children’s to adult fiction as seamlessly as others thought.
And then we get to dog obsessions and thinly veiled homo-eroticism. Jack talks about his favourite husky like some dementedly twee eight year-old from an Enid Blyton novel. I thought they were going to slap each other on the back at one point and settle down to a spiffingly good tea party with scones and lashings of ginger beer. And guess what? Jack loves Gus. But he can’t say it because he’s a man you know. Stiff upper lip, what what. But he loves him! He really does old chap! And do you know what? I think good old Gus might love him back too! Damn that rotten, bloody ghost. Dammit to hell!
Dark Matter is great for atmosphere and does offer some genuinely disturbing moments. But it’s a disposable read that won’t be keeping you up late at night, worrying about what’s hiding in the closet.