Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a deliciously disturbing story of a 1930s arctic expedition that pitted rational man against isolation, darkness and the supernatural. Presented in the form of a journal it offers an insight into the effects of anxiety over time, and how the mind cannot always be controlled.
When the story opens, Jack Miller, a grammar school boy with a London degree, has just met with the wealthy and titled Oxbridge educated quartet who have gained funding for a year long scientific research trip to a remote arctic island between Norway and the North Pole. They require a communications expert and have been told that Jack may be their man. Intimidated by their privilege and familiarity, Jack struggles to believe he could fit in. However, his life in London is such that he is desparate for change.
Six months later he has resigned from his job, not without some misgivings, and sets off as an accepted member of the team. The excitement of the undertaking carries them all through the journey and the setting up of their camp. Rotas are agreed and a routine established as the days shorten towards what, in this part of the world, will be four months of darkness cut off from the world by a frozen sea.
The skipper of the boat which provided their transport had been reluctant to take them to their chosen base. He had talked of it being a place that made bad things happen. The scientists refuse to accept such an irrational opinion, but a seed of doubt has been sown. By the time the boat leaves events have conspired to shrink the team to three. Jack has also experienced moments of sudden fear that he cannot explain.
Before the long winter truly closes in around the group, illness hits and Jack is left to cope on his own. Amidst the relentless darkness and isolation he must also deal with the prescence of a terrifying spectral being whose existence he was loath to admit but which he can no longer deny.
The stark beauty of the frozen wilderness becomes a threat. Jack does his best to continue the work the team was funded to undertake but his mind is battling with a fear he cannot rationally explain. Reluctant to appear foolish, and eager to retain the admiration of his team leader, he denies that anything is wrong when he communicates with the outside world. Alone he struggles to maintain any semblance of a normal existence.
The author brilliantly evokes the irrationality of certain fears and the very real impact they can have. The reader feels the cold seeping in under doors, and listens with trepidation for unexplained footfall or the breathing of someone who cannot be there.
With new scientific discoveries being made all the time, how much is really known about the world in which we live? This is a ghost story of the highest order.