BBC Radio 4’s Dark Matter: a perfectly frightening ghost story

Dark Matter is one of a distinguished sub-genre of ghost stories set at the Poles.

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“I’m 28 years old and I hate my life,” isn’t perhaps a line you’d expect in a prize seasonal broadcast. But Michelle Paver’s brilliant 2010 story (here abridged into ten short episodes) about a vicious haunting at a desolate weather station in the 1930s Arctic is brimful with such self-loathing. There are cliffs “the colour of dried blood” and stone beaches littered with “the giant ribs of whales”.

A young chancer (voiced by Lee Ingleby) is left to man a meteorological station in remote, frozen Norway, going mad with fear as he keeps seeing, always at a distance, “a man standing in front of the cabin. His back was turned. One shoulder higher than the other…” One of horror writing’s most powerful tropes (from Dickens to MR James) is the unidentified figure spied in the near distance. Paver’s figure is fabulously grim. “Slowly, awkwardly, it stood and faced me,” gasps Ingleby, overwhelmed with fear and the “smell of rotten seaweed and… something else”.

Ghost stories. The indescribable feeling of Christmas cosiness they inspire. That feeling of wakening from cold and danger, from outside to inside: that deeply familiar, human ritual. Dark Matter is one of a distinguished sub-genre of frightening stories set at the Poles (Frankenstein, His Dark Materials, The Thing). And going mad in the ice is a particularly rich seam.

Travelling in Greenland a few years ago, I came across a 1948 French wooden expedition hut, still standing but held together with fraying ropes, on a rocky beach near the Eqi glacier. Inside, on the walls, the long-dead scientists’ graffiti was staggeringly mournful. “OH I AM A USELESS BURDEN” someone had carved with what looked like a very sharp knife. Outside, the ever-calving glacier sounded like the approach of the armies of Mordor.

All this sensitivity and lostness the 43-year-old Ingleby has naturally in his voice. There’s a faint patina of Burnley that’s simultaneously musical and flat. A voice that never quite reaches the limits of its cadences (you feel he could read for days). It’s a voice that in its soul can’t quite ever be hooped into a happy ending. Not that there is one – naturally. It being Christmas, after all. 

Dark Matter
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special