In 1937, four young men travel to Spitsbergen where they plan to overwinter in a remote bay for scientific purposes. Through unfortunate circumstances and unforeseeable events, one of them is left there on his own, in the endless night of an Arctic winter, in a place the locals call haunted, with only a few dogs and his own thoughts as companions.
What makes this book is the atmosphere. Paver manages to bring the Arctic wasteland to life by describing everything in a vivid and evocative way; the sounds of the ice, the beauty of the northern lights, the importance of moonlight and the meaning of time in an endless darkness, the impact of isolation, the significance of a strict daily routine, and the harsh realities of an Arctic winter like the extreme cold, storms that last days on end, or the hoar frost that is gathering inside dwellings. The dread and paranoia are slow to build up which, aided by the natural eerieness of the place, leads to a tense and haunting mood. The glimpses of the supernatural are rare but the descent into madness is all the more present, since the story is mostly told through the entries in the protagonist’s journal.
Sadly, the ending is not quite up to par. It just does not match the rest of the book because after the slow and steady pace and the careful set-up it felt rushed and half-baked. I am also not quite satisfied with all the plot developments that led to that point as some of them feel unimaginative and forced, for example, how everyone except the protagonist has to leave the place, or when one after the other all the clocks stop working. Additionally, the characters could have been fleshed out more as they are rather cookie-cutter. One of the adventurers, for instance, is as ugly on the inside as he is on the outside while another one is incredibly handsome and just as nice. This is as uninspired as possible. The protagonist himself is thankfully a little more developed; the cracks in his psychological armour are there from the beginning so the terror can easily creep in to take over, and this process is utterly convincing.
If you like ghost stories, especially ones that are a slow burn, and mainly rely on atmosphere and a unique setting, I recommend this wholeheartedly. It has flaws and you don’t want to think too deeply about it, but it is an exciting page-turner that should definitely be read on a cold, dark night.