Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Something I learned from Michelle Paver’s Arctic ghost story, Dark Matter, is that the word ‘haunted’ derives from the Old Norse ‘heimta’, meaning ‘to bring home’, and the Old English ‘hamettan’, ‘to give a home to’. Which adds a certain significance to the words of her protagonist, Jack Miller, as he writes in his diary:

‘I never expected this, but I feel at home here. I love Gruhuken. I love the clarity and the desolation. Yes, even the cruelty. Because it’s true. It’s part of life. I’m happy.’

dark-matter-by-michelle-paverGruhuken is an isolated spot on the Arctic coast, where Jack Miller has travelled as part of a scientific expedition (ill-fated from the start, as accidents and bereavements prevent two of its five members from reaching it). For four of the five — public school friends Gus Balfour, Algie Carlisle, Hugo Charteris-Black and Teddy Wintringham — it’s something of a jolly adventure, but for middle-class-and-failing Jack Miller it’s a last chance. Stuck in an eight-year Slough of Despond since the pre-World War II financial slump meant that the best he could do with his degree in physics was land a place as a stationer’s clerk, Miller is perhaps on the edge of contemplating suicide, which may be why he feels so at home when he finally reaches the bleak Arctic (‘That first sight of it. Like a blow to the heart. The desolation. The beauty.’): it looks like the world feels to him. But by the time he reaches it, his resentment has started to thaw, as he finds something in the rather boyish expedition leader, Gus, to like, even admire, despite his own bitterness at Gus and co.’s cheery acceptance of their own privilege.

Of course, it can’t last. Gruhuken is haunted. Like Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, Paver solves the two main problems of the haunted house story: she’s got her mixed bunch of people to her ghost-friendly, isolated location, thanks to their embarking on this scientific expedition to a land where it becomes solid night for four months of the year, and where they’ll be too remote from the nearest human settlement for immediate help; and she’s going to keep at least one of them there no matter what, as Jack Miller feels this is his only shot at fixing the dreary despair his life has slipped into, a feeling that mixes inextricably with a need to win boyish Gus’s admiration — plus, of course, a rational man’s sense that an ordered life and a strict routine ought to be all he needs to keep him from going doolally.

Dark MatterThe Arctic is established as a place that brings out the bleakly practical, if not the basely savage, in man. We see Algie skin and gut a still-living seal, then talk casually about bashing out the huskies’ back teeth to stop them chewing through their leashes. This is a world on the brink of the Second World War, which will be full of man’s (industrialised) savagery to man, but human nature’s no different here, far away on the Arctic coast, as Miller begins to sense. A man came here some time ago, and ‘He was ugly, and he had that abject manner which brings out the worst in people, particularly men.’ As such he might be an exaggerated image of Miller’s own idea of himself, downtrodden and feeling that he deserves what life has thrown at him; while the rage he senses emanating from the thing that lingers in Gruhuken could well be his own resentment towards what life has done to him. Ultimately, you’re only ever haunted by yourself; you bring your own ghosts with you, that’s why you feel so at home.

Like so many modern ghost stories, here the haunted are surrounded by scientific paraphernalia — usually this is deliberately for the sake of detecting the ghost, as in, for instance, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), or 2011’s The Awakening. In Dark Matter, the scientific equipment is for taking measurements related to the weather, and nothing to do with the ghost at all, but it’s perhaps significant that Miller’s final descent into all-out terror begins when an accident destroys his last remaining timepiece, Gus’s travel clock, which simultaneously breaks his connection to Gus, the civilised world, rationality, and time itself.

It’s the descriptions of the Arctic that really make Dark Matter work. It really feels like a land of extremes, so wild and bleak and inhuman it might be as far as away Mars, and just as inhospitable — where a single mistake, like forgetting to light a lamp, or knocking one over, can lead to a stark and inevitable death. The one thing I can’t get out of my head, though, is the ‘bear post’ — a relic of a previous encampment, it seems to embody everything the book’s about, from Algie’s rather casual cruelty to animals, to other men’s un-detailed cruelty to one of their own kind (‘When men know they won’t be found out, they will do anything.’). Never fully explained, this brutally simple object accrues far more horror than even the ‘gengånger’ — ‘the one who walks again’ — with its ‘wet round head’ does.

The Omega Factor

OmegaFactor_titleThe early 1970s was obsessed with black magic and devil worship; by the end of the 1980s, this had somehow given way to the dolphins, rainbows and crystals of the New Age. Somewhere in between (at 8:10p.m. on the 13th June 1979, to be exact), the BBC began a ten-part series about a secret government agency, Department 7, whose task it was to look into ESP and the paranormal — telepathy, telekinesis, past lives, ghosts, séances, brainwashing, the power of sound to evoke the terrors of the past, and out-of-body experiences. It could be seen as a round-up of all the 1970s’ more outré preoccupations, with its best episode (‘Powers of Darkness’) in full occult mode (opening with a ouija board, ending with a blood sacrifice on a church altar), while ‘Visitations’ brings out the full scientific ghost-hunting toolkit last seen in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), and ‘Child’s Play’ has a super-powerful psychic child just beginning to understand his powers (a sort of private school mix of Stephen King’s Carrie with The Medusa Touch) — all served up with lashings of government/corporate paranoia (as in ‘St Anthony’s Fire’, about a big company testing dodgy new foods on ex-hippies).

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The first episode has freelance journalist Tom Crane (played by James Hazeldine — later the dad in ITV’s Chocky) researching some Sunday supplement articles on the paranormal by arm-twisting a bibulous, plummy old satanist called Oliphant into revealing the current whereabouts of ‘the man that Crowley wouldn’t meet’, Edward Drexel. Drexel (played by Cyril Luckham, the White Guardian in Doctor Who the year before) is currently posing as an antiquarian bookseller in Edinburgh, so Crane goes north to try to get him to give a demonstration of psychic power. When Crane picks the case of a missing local woman as a possible subject, Drexel says Crane ought to be able to find her himself. Soon after, Crane wakes from dozing over his reporter’s notepad to find he’s written, in his sleep, a couple of names, which, along with a dream-vision he’s just had, lead him to the woman’s body. Crane, it seems, has mental powers of his own, and Drexel isn’t the only one to have sensed this — it turns out Crane’s wife’s best friend, Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a year out of Leela-leathers) is part of Department 7, and they’ve been trying to awaken Crane to his psychic powers for some time.

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At the end of the first episode, Crane is recruited to work for Department 7. By this point, he’s out for revenge on Edward Drexel, who he blames for the death of his wife (at the end of the first episode), after Drexel’s mediumistic young woman companion, Morag, suddenly appeared in the middle of the road in her nightie/wooly dress, making Crane swerve his car into a tree. At this point, I thought I knew how the series was going to play out: Drexel would be the arch-enemy, popping up from behind each week’s supernatural escapade, while the dead wife would never be mentioned again, except to give our hero some motivation and a bit of emotional depth; meanwhile, the coast would be clear for a romance with Dr Anne. But, to my surprise, the show had a bit more depth and character than that. Drexel does pop up again, but is soon dealt with once and for all. And there is a slow-developing romance with Dr Anne, but Tom Crane takes a lot longer to get over his wife’s death than your average TV series hero, and Anne also has undefined feelings for the other main character of the series, Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Crane and Martindale’s relationship, meanwhile, is almost as interesting as Crane and Anne’s, as Crane is constantly refusing to do what Martindale asks him to do, not to mention questioning Martindale’s methods and morals, which gets the otherwise urbane and assured Martindale into the occasional tizz.

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I have to admit, Roy Martindale is my favourite character in the series. All of the main three are well-realised. Tom Crane, perhaps because he’s the hero-figure, is the least three-dimensional. He has his principles and sticks to them, meaning there isn’t really another side to his character (apart from the way his free-spiritedness constantly rubs against the institutionalised nature of Department 7), but I think James Hazeldine’s earnestness and on-the-level portrayal adds a warm dose of humanity to the hero figure, making him constantly likeable. Anne Reynolds, on the other hand, is always able to see both sides of the (many) arguments between Crane and Martindale, and as much as she’s on Crane’s side, she’s also on Department 7’s, and is often telling Martindale when Crane’s gone off on his own — as he does pretty much every episode. (Towards the end of the series, I wondered how he kept his job; he refuses on principle to do what he’s told, often spending half of each episode sulking on Anne’s sofa, before running off to investigate something he’s been warned away from.) Roy Martindale is the most flawed of the leading three, and perhaps that’s what makes him the most interesting. He’s totally focused on the new ground they’re breaking in psychic research, and is always being brought up short whenever Crane reminds him of the moral issues he’s blithely overlooking. Martindale tries to educate Ann Reynolds’s tastes in music towards the more experimental and modern (while Tom Crane can be heard playing Dark Side of the Moon while standing in front of his brother’s Uriah Heep poster), and obviously assumes, for the first half of the series, that she’s more interested in him than in Crane. Even towards the end of the series, when we’re starting to feel Martindale must have a shadow side, he can occasionally be found defending, to his own bosses, the very views he’s just been arguing against with Crane. Plus, I like his rat-like grin.

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Throughout the series, there are rumours of an organisation known as Omega who might be looking to use people’s psychic powers for some more nefarious purpose than Department 7’s ‘defence of the realm’ mandate, and the final episode brings them into the open, ending with enough of a hint that a second series might have been in the offing.

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But it wasn’t. The Omega Factor had just one series, and one showing of it, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned much in discussions of 70s horror/SF TV. Despite being around at the time it was shown, I only heard of it recently. It is, of course, often compared to The X-Files, but I think it’s more the sort of thing I’d have liked The X-Files to be: a bit more subtle, and with more dramatic development of its characters. Big Finish audio have just started releasing a series of new stories featuring Dr Anne Reynolds, though sadly without Tom Crane, of course, as James Hazeldine died in 2002.