Strange Story #14: Dark Matter: A Ghost Story
Author: Michelle Paver
All day I've been trying to get it straight in my mind. What did I see? Should I tell the others?
Ambiguity is a term of I've used many times in the course of this series, and I've been looking for a story that illustrates a certain specific kind of ambiguity. Namely the 'is it real or is it all in their minds?' kind. A Turn Of The Screw is the classic example, but surely done to death (no pun intended). I wanted something a bit less obvious.
This kind of ambiguity is in some ways more simplistic than that found in other strange stories: it's basically a binary ambiguity, with either everything the main character tells us being real (in which case reality = A) or it's all a delusion (in which case reality = B). So I tend to think of these kind of stories as being less 'pure' types of weird fiction as some of the really ambiguous stuff we've been talking about - a story like Tell Me I'll See You Again doesn't just offer you a straight A/B choice of meaning, but a whole damn alphabet.
That's not to say that these kind of stories are any weaker or less interesting than other types of weird fiction - indeed I think they have several strengths, one of which is the ability to stretch out the ambiguity for a longer period of time without annoying the reader. It's no coincidence I think that Dark Matter is the first novel I've featured in this series.
And what a novel. Set in the Thirties, it tells of a group of researchers travelling to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle. One of them, Jack Miller, is already somewhat isolated from the others dues to reasons of class, and due to a combination of bad luck and Jack's own character flaws, he ends up alone at the camp as the six month Arctic night begins...
Paver uses the Arctic setting masterfully - the early stages of the voyage are set at the time of year where daylight lasts twenty-four hours, but Jack (and the reader) are constantly aware that the darkness is coming:
The birds are leaving and the nights are getting longer.
This light/dark pathetic fallacy seems to mirror the A/B ambiguity at the story's core, and it's only the Arctic setting that allows Paver to get away with it, for there day and night are contrasted in a starker way than anywhere else in the world (except the Antarctic, obviously). The white/black colour scheme of the setting seems to have the same kind of thematic effect.
I don't want to give too much away, for that's not what this series is about, but I'm sure it will surprise no one to learn that Jack's solitary sojourn doesn't go well. And the novel's subtitle gives away that a ghost is involved... but is the ghost real or imaginary?
Maybe this question is at the heart of all ghost stories, but rarely is it so starkly exposed as here. Cabin fever is a reality to the Norwegian trappers and sailors who accompany Jack's expedition in the early stages - not a psychological theory but something very real that can happen to those trying to get through "the dark time" alone. Tales of it are used as forewarnings so the reader is fully primed to not take everything Jack says on trust. And soon he is telling us about the strange, dripping, lopsided figure he sees around camp...
It can't hurt you. All it can do is frighten Jack tells himself. But since the reader is equally afraid that Jack is losing his mind as that the haunting is real, this isn't exactly comforting.Paradoxically the hints that the ghostly figure isn't real are the more scary - because then all we are left with is the idea of an isolated figure, going slowly mad against the perpetual backdrop of white snow and dark, dark night.
Next Time: Strange Stories #15. whatever the best strange story I encounter in my copious holiday reading is..!