Thomas E. Staples – The Book That Fucked Me Up
‘Dark Matter’ By Michelle Paver
“I’m twenty-eight years old and I hate my life.”
“I never have the time or the energy to work out how to change it.”
“And always I’ve got this panicky feeling inside, because I know I’m getting nowhere, just keeping myself alive.”
I’m scared of everything. I spend most days in a state of constant fear, so it’s not often that I find myself actually afraid of something that’s happening in a book or a movie.
I guess Michelle Paver must’ve thought it was time to change that, and proceeded to do so with her horror novel Dark Matter, released in 2010.
In Dark Matter’s 1937 London, Jack Miller is going nowhere. World War 2 is looming on the horizon, as well, so the city is already suffering as its people do the same. Jack is given the opportunity of going on an arctic expedition to the fictional Gruhuken, a place just on the coast of the slightly-less-fictional Svalbard in Norway.
When a dead body is dug out of the Thames – a body that Jack sees himself potentially becoming – he decides to go along on the expedition to escape the same fate. Oh, and Gruhuken is supposedly haunted.
This is when I knew this book was going to disturb me. I – and many people I know – feel as if we’re going nowhere in life, and it’s something I struggle with daily. I don’t quite know how to change it, either, and I always hope I can do something major that’ll cause everything to fall into place. Without that, though, time feels as if it’s slowly slipping away.
After all, as Jack says, he is simply keeping himself alive so he can continue to keep himself alive. He puts himself in a regrettable situation, and people who have felt truly desperate for change will understand that decision completely.
For me, the dead body in the Thames is a very stark reminder that, if life is nothing more than keeping oneself going, how can you be satisfied with the knowledge that you will eventually fail to do so?
You are winning, but one day, you will lose.
This is one of the reasons Dark Matter ruined me. All the blood and gore in the world cannot recreate the fear of a simple, emotional hook, and this book comes out swinging.
It’s like when I first listened to Pink Floyd’s Time and realised that I might’ve already wasted my entire life and am set to continue achieving nothing with it, even if that’s not entirely true. Either way, it is fear on a very deep, personal level, and we are only one chapter in.
Beyond this point, however, I feel that detailing the plot much further will be to the novel’s detriment in case you plan to read it yourself, so, I’ll be light on the details.
“If it can be described, it can be understood. If it can be understood, it need not be feared.”
As a book with only one character, really, it feels odd to call Dark Matter a character-driven story, but I’m going to do it anyway because I make the rules here. There are other side characters along for the expedition, and one, in particular, becomes very important later on, but they’re rarely featured in the book after a certain point, which I really like.
In the arctic, Jack being alone is key to instilling dread in him. He was alone in London, and now he’s alone in Gruhuken, or at least hopes he is. The format of the novel suits this, too, as it is told through a series of notes Jack made over the course of the expedition, book-ended by outsider information in the form of various emails.
It also leads to a wonderful concept later on, wherein Jack reads the diaries of his other crew members and gets some insight into everything they’ve been going through, letting us compare all their trauma and hardship.
There is no escaping Jack’s mind on this one. You are with him the entire way.
“How odd, that light should prevent one from seeing.”
Dark Matter handles fear on a scene-to-scene basis in an interesting way, and that’s because it does so with the utmost patience.
If you’ve ever been inside your house at night with the lights on, you’ve probably felt uncomfortable knowing that anyone outside can see you perfectly through your window, and you cannot see them. In a majority of media the use of light helps to show safety from the horrors that lurk outside, but, it’s different here. The horror might be outside, or it might not be, and if it is, it can see you perfectly.
This is the worst thing ever because, when I was younger, I lived in a house that had a giant window in the kitchen without any blinds to cover it. Every time I made a cup of tea or went to change the bins I couldn’t shake the idea that somebody was watching me, and I would have no idea if they were there. All that was between myself and the potential stalkers, axe murderers or big fluffy werewolves that we have in the UK was a piece of flimsy material less than a centimetre thick.
I still think about it sometimes, and the mere thought of a window without closed curtains makes me want to stay inside for the rest of my life. Jack has to deal with this exact problem, as well, and a lot of the fear is drawn from this concept whilst being cranked up to eleven.
“Fear of the dark. Until I came here, I thought that was for children; that you grew out of it. But it never really goes away. It’s always there underneath. The oldest fear of all.”
Dark Matter is a paranoid person’s nightmare, too. It takes it slow; very slow. I can see how some may find this boring, but, it’s not a particularly long book to begin with, and I think some impact would’ve been lost if Jack spent a chapter blasting waves of ice zombies with an elephant gun.
No, instead, Jack is forced to wait out the nights on his own. It’s excellent stuff.
I’ve already gone into Jack as a character, but I do also want to give a massive amount of praise to the way he is presented. We genuinely get to know him and feel as if we have done for years. Everything he goes through is something that we are forced to go through with him. Plus, the way he describes certain events from his past – there’s a dog-related one in particular that made me feel sick – gives you a perfect idea of his emotional state, seeing as how he recalls certain stories when he, in the present, begins to struggle.
“But young as I was, I suspected that a God who allows such cruelty wouldn’t have cared about bringing it to an end.”
Lastly, there is so much tragedy in Dark Matter.
I don’t often find myself feeling upset by books, and yet, there were multiple occasions in which this one broke me. A part of this could be due to Jeremy Northam’s wonderful performance on the audiobook, which I would recommend if you wanted to give this one a go, but the strength of Paver’s characterisation and overall writing cannot be ignored.
This book definitely brings cruelty to the forefront, but never in a way that feels exploitative. It’s hideous at times, for sure, but it doesn’t revel in it. It’s light on gore, but heavy on dread. It’s a chilling, slow-burn of a novel that threatens to punch you in the kidneys at every turn, but even when it does, you don’t feel fully prepared for it.
I won’t ever forget Dark Matter. And believe me…
KR: Is there a book that really messed with your head, that gave you nightmares and f***** you up? I’d love to hear from you. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org expressing an interest in sharing this book and Together let’s Promote Horror
Thomas E. Staples
Thomas E. Staples is a University graduate in Creative Writing and English Literature.
With a love of both horror and comedy, they often smash the genres together very irresponsibly to see what happens.
They have published multiple short stories since 2015, started writing books, too, apparently, and published their debut novel ‘The Case of the Giant Carnivorous Worm’ in 2019.
You can find out more about Thomas via his official website www.wrybrain.com
You can follow Thomas on Twitter @MrTEStaples
The Case Of The Giant Carnivorous Worm
Anna Pendleton is terrible at what she does. With a keen eye and a not-so-keen everything else, her skills as a private investigator aren’t given much time to shine, until buildings begin to vanish and the ground starts eating people. Alongside her only actual friend, Madeleine, she will run face-first into danger, mystery and a giant carnivorous worm, all to help the residents of her isolated British town. Especially if they have money. Fast-paced, gory, and immensely entertaining, The Case of the Giant Carnivorous Worm blends fantasy horror and mystery with plenty of humour in an exhilarating debut.