I really wanted to enjoy Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, and while it wasn’t a bad novel in the least, the story left me wanting so much more. I did not feel like much happened by the end of the novel, and though it is touted as a ghost story, it came across for me as more a romance with a ghost lurking in the background and mostly offstage.
I enjoy stories set in the polar ice caps. The settings themselves are frightening as human life has such a tenuous grasp in those environments. I’m not widely read on novels (or shorter works that take place there), but my personal benchmarks are Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Dan Simmons’ The Terror. One of the more consistent complaints I’ve encountered about the latter is the novel’s bloat. Simmons placed a lot of emphasis on making the environment real for the reader. At that, I believe he was successful. At least for me. I experienced, almost viscerally, the barrenness of the arctic desert and the violence it inflicts on those who believe mistakenly (naively) they can master it.
“In one of my periodicals, there’s a paper by someone who’s worked out that what we know of the universe is only a tiny percentage of what actually exists. He says what’s left can’t be seen or detected, but it’s there; he calls it ‘dark matter’. … I find the idea unsettling. Or rather, not the idea itself, that’s merely an odd notion about outer space. What I don’t like is the feeling I sometimes get that other things might exist around us, of which we know nothing.” (p.95)
Granted, the story takes place in the early 20th century, I still think that is a bit of a stretch to justify the title. Moreover, it felt as if not much happened over the course of the novel. There were some promising threads that I felt were not pulled through as much as they could have been. The “ghost” was satisfactorily creepy when it did appear, and its backstory elicited sufficient pathos that the reader might pity him. But doesn’t that make the apparition, then, less frightening?
Overall, Dark Matter was a quick read that lacked appropriate depth to call itself a proper ghost story. The premise might have been better served as a short story, in the end.