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.’
Gruhuken 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.
The 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.