By Michelle Paver
Here’s a truly unsettling ghost story.
London, 1937. A four-man scientific expedition to the Arctic recruits Jack as their wireless operator – it’s through Jack’s journal that the story is told. There are tensions within the group – upper-class Gus, Hugo, Teddy and Algie look down on Jack’s more lowly background, but he is determined to take advantage of the opportunity to prove himself the scientist he longs to be. Before the expedition sets off, Teddy has to withdraw. The remaining four continue with their arrangements to overwinter in the abandoned mining settlement of Gruhuken in Spitsbergen.
Although they set off in high spirits, there are soon hints that all will not be well. They find that the captain of the ship transporting them and their equipment is reluctant to take them to the bay, but he won’t explain why, only giving dark warnings about it not being the “right” place for a camp. Jack reads of a previous expedition not long ago, where four men “starved to death in their cabin, despite having piles of ammunition and guns in perfect working order. The man who wrote the book says they’d been too frightened to leave the cabin – for terror of the deadness beyond“. But, as in all good ghost stories, the hints of horrors to come are discounted by those who will soon be facing them.
Hugo breaks a leg and can’t continue, so it’s a party of three who eventually reach their destination. The ship’s crew, anxious to be gone before the sun finally disappears and the Arctic winter sets in, helps them build their cabin and set up the camp. And then Jack, Gus and Algie are left alone in the wilderness.
A routine is established – they make the scientific observations and readings and Jack radios the information to their sponsors. Housekeeping tasks are assigned. Although Gus and Jack become friends, Jack finds it difficult to cope with Algie’s eccentricities.
But as the days become shorter, and the final setting of the sun approaches, they feel a creeping sense of dread. The abandoned mine and dilapidated hut are places of revulsion – when Jack goes into the hut he senses that there’s something very wrong. He speculates about its previous inhabitants. “What must it have been like? No wireless, maybe not even a companion … to know that you’re the only human being in all this wilderness.” Then: “Suddenly I felt desolate. It’s hard to describe. An oppression. A wild plummeting of the spirits. The romance of trapping peeled away, and what remained was this. Squalor. Loneliness”.
The unease turns to fear as Jack begins to see and hear a deformed figure which haunts the camp. He starts to doubt his sanity, but won’t confide in the others for fear of appearing weak. When a medical emergency means that Gus and Algie have to leave Gruhuken, Jack must confront the wilderness, the constant darkness and the horror of the unknown visitor alone.
He has seen that the darkness will be a challenge. During the journey north he had been enchanted by the midnight sun – “above all, I love this soft, watery, never-ending light …. there’s no dawn and no dusk. Time has no meaning. We’ve left the real world, and entered a land of dreams.” But he acknowledges that “there’ll come a time when it’s always dark. Thinking of that gives me a queer flutter in my stomach. In a way, I can’t wait. I want to see if I can take it.” And when the sun has finally disappeared for four months, Jack writes in his journal “until I came here, I thought that (fear of the dark) 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.”
We might think, then, that all Jack has to do is to keep the lights on. But he is alone. He can’t leave the stove lit or a lamp burning inside the cabin in case of fire. And this means that returning after an excursion outside is unsettling. “I hate the moment when I close the door behind me and I’m shut in the long, dark hall. In the beam of my torch, everyday things leap from the shadows. The waterproofs on the hooks look like – well, not like empty clothes.”
And, as Paver has hinted from the beginning of the story, light may not in any case be the antidote to the threat of darkness. Even when Jack leaves his very first meeting with the others, he heads home through the fog where the “street lamps (are) just murky yellow pools, illuminating nothing.”
Jack carries on the business of taking readings from the equipment outside the cabin, but he’s “trying to train myself to find my way in the dark without a torch. I don’t like the way the beam of light draws your eye and renders what’s beyond impenetrable. I suppose it’s the same as when you’re inside the cabin and you light a lamp and it prevents you from seeing outside … how odd, that light should prevent one from seeing.”
He does hear strange sounds, however; footsteps on the porch outside the cabin, and metal scraping along the ground. He feels increasingly threatened and disorientated. “When all you can see out the window is black – it’s frightening how quickly you begin to doubt. the suspicion flickers at the edge of your mind: maybe there is nothing beyond those windows. Maybe there is only you in this cabin, and beyond it the dark.”
“Once,” he writes, “I thought fear of the dark was the oldest fear of all. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it’s not the dark that people fear, but what comes in the dark.”
And yes, Jack, it’s coming for you.