The vast, unsentient reality that’s always present

Thin Air
by Michelle Paver

When this was picked for my book club I was pleased because I really enjoyed Paver’s previous novel Dark Matter. However, this was basically the same story in a different setting and not done quite as well. I still enjoyed it, but there was the missed opportunity here to be a little more original.

Dr Stephen Pearce has joined his brother Kit’s mountaineering expedition at the last minute because they need a medic. But this isn’t just any jaunt up a mountain; this is an attempt to be the first to successfully climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, straddling the border of Nepal and India.

It’s the early 1930s and rich Europeans are obsessed with racing each other to the extreme points of the world. Kit’s plan is to follow in the footsteps of his hero Edmund Lyell, whose disastrous 1907 expedition came the closest to date to reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga. Stephen dislikes this idea and feels they should strike their own path, especially after an ominous warning from the last survivor of the Lyell expedition, Charles Tennant. But Stephen is not only the newbie to the group, but also the least experienced climber, and as such has no real vote.

Stephen is frustrated that fog obscures the view of Kangchenjunga for weeks before he gets his first glimpse. He’s spooked by Tennant’s warning and any reminder of the Lyell expedition. But there’s something else as well, a shadowy figure on the mountain that at first Stephen dismisses as a trick of the light, but later becomes convinced is a ghost, and not the harmless kind.

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This is not only something in my mind

The Small Hand

The Small Hand
by Susan Hill

After I finally got round to reading I’m the King of the Castle last year I decided I really should more of Hill’s work, especially her ghost stories. I bought this on a whim. I suspect it’s not her best.

This is in many ways a classic ghost story. It’s set in modern times but with an older protagonist and recognisable settings (an empty house, fusty libraries, a remote monastery in France, the botanical garden in Oxford) so it has the atmosphere of those Victorian ghost stories.

“All I could hear were the birds settling down, a thrush singing high up on the branches of a walnut tree and blackbirds pinking as they scurried in the undergrowth. I got out of the car and, as I stood there, the birdsong gradually subsided and then there was an extraordinary hush, a strange quietness into which I felt I had broken as some unwelcome intruder.”

Rare book dealer Adam Snow is on his way home from visiting a client when he gets lost in poorly signposted country lanes and finds himself at the entrance to an old abandoned country house. While standing at the edge of the overgrown garden he feels a small child’s hand in his own, but of course there is no child there. This begins both a small obsession with the house and a series of ghostly episodes that threaten to drive Adam crazy or even kill him.

“As I stood in the gathering stillness and soft spring dusk, something happened. I do not much care whether or not I am believed. That does not matter. I know. That is all…I know because if I close my eyes now I feel it happening again, the memory of it is vivid and it is a physical memory. My body feels it, this is not only something in my mind.”

I found this novel a bit predictable though still a good ride and beautifully written, but it didn’t scare me. At all. Which is a real failing in a ghost story. And I even read this alone in bed late at night.

I did like the spooky settings, particularly the mountain-top monastery with its amazing hidden library and the descriptions of stillness and quiet there. I could imagine a fantastic mystery story set there, but maybe I’m just thinking of The Name of the Rose!

Published 2010 by Picador.

Source: I bought it secondhand.

In the spirit of winter

Dark Matter: a Ghost Story
by Michelle Paver

This book has all the perfect elements to interest me and yet somehow I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across it in a shop. An excellent find!

The bulk of the novel takes the form of a journal, kept by Jack Miller during an expedition to the Arctic in 1937. A down-at-heel London clerk who hates his job and resents that money troubles meant he had to give up his place at university and his dream of becoming a physicist, the opportunity to work as communications man for a meteorological study in Svalbard should be the ideal way out of his slump. He is almost put off by the other four members of the party being terribly upper class, but figures he can go off to do this for a year and then when he gets back there will be a war to fight in.

A prologue tells us that the expedition did not go well, that terrible things happened and at least one man died, so the atmosphere is ominous from the start. The tension is ramped up each time something goes wrong, but even without mishaps the fast-approaching Arctic winter is frightening enough. Paver does an excellent job of combining descriptions of the cold beauty of the 24-hour sunlight with explanations of how that will turn to 24-hour darkness without it ever feeling as though you are being lectured to.

Despite all the ramped-up fear, the early sections of this book really made me want to go to the Arctic. The setting came from Paver’s own journeys to various places in the North Pole and her first-hand knowledge really shows. She even, after conceiving the idea for this book, travelled to Svalbard during winter to experience camping and hiking in the endless darkness. As a qualified biochemist, lover of the Arctic and classic ghost stories, and published author of her own ghost stories, no-one could have been more qualified to write this story.

And it is brilliant and evocative and terrible but I was never quite convinced by the supernatural element. I would have been happy to see the terrors as a product of psychological disturbance, not an unusual outcome of overwintering in the Arctic, but the novel seems to try hard to persuade us that the ghost is real, that it is much more sinister and inexplicable than mere madness. I think more ambiguity on this point would have worked better for me.

But aside from that I loved it. Paver has done a wonderful job of developing the relationships between the men, and I especially enjoyed the growing closeness between Jack and one of the husky dogs – beautifully done. She has also very effectively created the fear and loneliness and self-doubt. Immediately after finishing this I started reading Shackleton’s account from the Antarctic and it really highlighted how Paver had got the tone spot-on.

First published in 2010 by Orion. Paperback edition published 2011.

See also: reviews on Savidge Reads and Chasing Bawa

Undercurrents

RebeccaRebecca
by Daphne du Maurier

This was, appropriately, the final book in the Discovering Daphne readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I have been looking forward for months to re-reading it, and was a little sad at how quickly I flew through its pages when this week finally came.

One of the reasons I highly rate this book (and no doubt many others would agree) is the great pleasure of re-reading it. This was my third reading (I think) and I loved looking out for the hints of what is to come, as well as spotting the red herrings that had misled me previous times. Knowing the story allowed me to linger over the detailed gothic descriptions when I was in the mood and skim over them when I wasn’t. Despite knowing the outcome, I was still excited by the build-up of tension and on tenterhooks in all the right places. I’m convinced – du Maurier was officially a wonderful writer.

Briefly, this is the story of the second Mrs Maxim de Winter. Or rather, she is the one who tells the story, but for a lot of the time it isn’t about her at all, it’s about Rebecca. Rebecca was Maxim’s first wife and died tragically young, just a year before he met and swiftly married his second wife.

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When is a ghost story not a ghost story?

The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

Once again I’m sad to say that I’m a little disappointed by an author I had invariably liked. Not that this is by any means a bad book, it just wasn’t great.

What it is is a long book, and it takes a few hundred pages for the story to get going. The narrator is solid, sensible bachelor Dr Faraday and he tells the story the way you imagine he might tell any anecdote: dully, with too much dry detail and no distinction between what’s important and what isn’t. This actually turns out to be key, but that doesn’t take away the dullness of the style.

It’s certainly cleverly written, with hints and clues and red herrings aplenty. But for what purports to be a chilling ghost story, I was not frightened or spooked once.

The story is set shortly after the Second World War. Dr Faraday has worked hard to rise from humble beginnings to being a village doctor. He has always been fascinated by Hundreds Hall, the mansion at the centre of the local landed estate, and when he is called to a patient there he is saddened to see that the place is in serious decline, largely due to the sagging finances of the once-great Ayres family. The doctor gradually befriends the three remaining members of the family and records the increasingly strange goings-on at the hall. He is torn between finding a logical physical explanation, a medical psychological explanation or an entirely supernatural explanation for it all.

Which might have been the basis for something fascinating indeed. And to her credit, Waters did surprise me with some of the directions the story goes in. But for me nothing can make up for dull narration and, while a few quiet slips from the narrator near the end made me look at the story rather differently, with more respect, that couldn’t undo the experience of slogging through hundreds of pages semi-bored.

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Virago Press. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009.