Date posted: 6th October 2016 / Book Reviews
I grew up on Michelle Paver’s novels for children. The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness sequence was the perfect balance of folklore, adventure and spirituality for a young enquiring mind.
So when her latest novel for adults Thin Air, a ghost story no less, landed on my desk, I was both intrigued and I have to admit a little afraid. I’ve never been good with ghosts, there’s something about the carefully crafted building of tension in a ghost story which just chills me to the bone. Nevertheless, the author’s name was enough to make me confident that the standard of the narrative would be excellent and the story palpably rendered. I was not disappointed.
Thin Air is a novel set in the 1930s, the golden age of mountaineering. A young medic Stephen Pearce and his brother Kits travel to India to join an expedition of five elite mountaineers who are setting out to climb Kangchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world and one which is notoriously known for the largest number of mountaineer deaths. They are following in the doomed footsteps of the mountaineers from The Lyell Expedition, one of the most famously tragic expeditions of all time and as they climb higher, the men discover the fearsome pull of the mountain and it soon becomes clear that dark things lie ahead. What if not all the souls were laid to rest?
One of the most striking things about this novel was for me, the way in which the mountain becomes less a setting for the story and more a character within it. As the mountaineers climbed steadily higher, I could feel myself gripped by their terrors and fears and it takes excellent storytelling to make this happen.
Paver capitalises on the eerie setting of the mountain with its chilling and tragic past by playing with themes of isolation, loneliness and paranoia and developing these traits in all of the characters to make this ghost story both arresting and affecting for each individual character and also for the reader. It does not take long to become lost in the limited world of the novel and to fear each icy bolt of fear as is it comes in the plot. I found the novel both transporting – it was as if I see and hear the sights and sounds of the 1930s – and truly spine-chilling. Thin Air certainly has something of the Gothic about it, but the difference is the horrors and terrors of the night do not so easily disappear in the new light. A read that unsettled me and yet gave me a new appreciation for the ghost story, thoroughly recommended.
Thin Air is out now, from Orion.
To celebrate the publication of her new novel Thin Air, Literature Works caught up with author Michelle Paver to discuss the importance of the past (and her past works) to her writing now. We also asked Michelle exactly what she thinks makes a good ghost story...
I grew up reading your Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series as a child. What always captivated me was the richness of the history and myth which ran throughout the novels. How important would you say the past is to your work and to what extent did the spirituality of the myths in those books inspire your new work for adults?
I’m so glad you enjoyed Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, and you’re right to ask me about the past, as none of my books has a wholly contemporary setting; it just doesn’t appeal to me. Perhaps that’s because setting a story in the past helps me write about what I love most, which is myth and folklore: in other words, the stories that people tell themselves in order to make sense of their lives .
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness is a tale of the Stone Age, and to write it I delved deep into the beliefs of traditional peoples from around the world. In the same way, once I’d chosen Mount Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas for Thin Air, I found that the beliefs of the local people – Sherpa, Sikkimese, Lepcha helped hugely to set the scene. My hero, Stephen, is an upper middle class English doctor who has no time for “native superstitions” about the mountain which he and his companions mean to climb. However, as they climb higher, and as Stephen becomes increasingly isolated, he begins to experience things he can’t explain. Is altitude and exposure making him hallucinate? Or is Kangchenjunga truly haunted?
Thin Air tells the story of an ill-fated mountaineering expedition in the 1930s. Why did you choose to write about mountaineers and how would you say that this decision influences the story you tell?
It wasn’t a conscious choice to write about mountaineers. The idea was totally unexpected, and came when I wasn’t even thinking about ghosts. I’d been having trouble for months with a rather painful condition called a “frozen shoulder”, and one night, as I was still wide awake at about 3 a.m., I grabbed an armful of books at random. They happened to be mountaineering memoirs (I’ve always enjoyed them) and that ‘s when it hit me: write a ghost story about a mountain.
This is how a story always begins for me, and it was no different with Thin Air. I had that slight shiver of excitement, that feeling of Yes, I really want to write about this. At the time, though, I had no idea where or when the story would take place, who the characters were, or how it would end. Luckily, I also had no idea that Thin Air would turn out to be the hardest thing I’d ever written.
The novel is a chilling ghost story which has lasting impact well beyond the page. For me, one of the most foreboding aspects of the story was the mountain itself, which almost became a character. How intentional was this decision?
Making the mountain a character was very much a deliberate choice, and one I made almost as soon as I’d found the right mountain. I’m not a mountaineer, but I have hiked at altitude in the Andes, Scandinavia and the Rockies, so at first, I thought about those for locations. I soon realised, though, that I had to set my ghost story in the Himalayas. I needed the colonial setting of the golden age of mountaineering: Mallory and Irvine, pith helmets, tweed climbing suits, columns of “native” porters …
Of all the highest peaks in the Himalayas, it was Kangchenjunga which captured my imagination. It stands alone, and its ice avalanches are legendary. By 1935, when Thin Air is set, it had already killed a lot of mountaineers, and no one had reached the top (they didn’t until 1955). What ‘s more, some of those who’d survived were frightened of it . Frank Smythe, one of the toughest, wrote that “Kangchenjunga is imbued with a blind, unreasoning hatred of the mountaineer…” He said the time he spent on it was the “most nerve-wracking” he’d ever experienced.
A mountain like that is already a character . But I knew that I had to make the story feel absolutely real • I needed the reader to feel that they’re right there with Stephen on the mountain – so I had to go to the Himalayas myself. As I said, I’m not a mountaineer, and I freely admit that I didn’t climb Kangchenjunga; it’s only a bit lower than Everest! But I did trek for eight days into the foothills towards it, following the same route as Frank Smythe’s 1930 expedition, on which I based Stephen’s. And “foothills” sounds a bit tamer than it was in reality, because we trekked from an altitude of about 6,000 feet to just under 15,000 feet, which is almost as high as Mont Blanc.
That trek proved crucial to the writing. I couldn ‘t have evoked the steamy malarial jungle of the foothills, or the savagery of the storm which Kangchenjunga sent us, or the claustrophobic atmosphere of being alone in a frozen tent at high altitude, if I hadn’t experienced them for myself.
If you could choose one element that is absolutely essential for a successful ghost story, what would it be?
I honestly can’t choose just one element, because I’m convinced that for a ghost story to succeed – especially a full-length one like Thin Air you need several elements in place, each of them crucial.
You need an atmospheric setting which feels real, so that the reader truly believes in the haunting. You need a ghost with a reason to haunt (it helps if this is malevolent) . You need the haunting to begin subtly, with the protagonist only gradually becoming aware that something is wrong; and the writing should employ suggestion, rather than explicit horror. Finally, you need an interesting protagonist and an involving story. Above all, of course, you need to entertain .
If even one of these elements is missing, or out of balance, then I think your ghost story will fail. That’s why they’re so fiendishly hard to write. It’s also why my first ghost story, Dark Matter, took twice as many re-writes as anything else I’ve ever written . And it’s why Thin Air took THREE times as many. But of course, it’s up to the reader to judge whether I’ve succeeded.
Thin Air utterly gripped me and at times, I felt gripped by fear during the novel. Ghost stories are notorious for causing this sense of duality in readers. What do you think it is about this type of story that compels readers to continue despite the fears they can inspire?
I’m delighted that Thin Air both gripped and frightened you, that’s exactly what I wanted to achieve. I don’t think anyone knows precisely why some people love to read ghost stories . It may be partly because a good ghost story allows us to explore the dark side of things, from which we normally turn away: the savagery of which ordinary people are capable; what happens to us after death … And we can do all that from the safety of our own sitting rooms, while reassuring ourselves that everything’s fine, because it’s only a story.
At Literature Works we like to ask writers for that one pivotal piece of advice about how to get the first draft of a novel on paper. What would you recommend?
I loathe writing the first draft of anything. Here ‘s what helps me. Once I’ve got a very rough idea of my plot, in terms of the protagonist ‘s aim and the obstacles they’ll face, I summarise it story on a single page. In other words, I draw up a flowsheet: a few brief bullet points that encapsulate the plot on one page. This forces me to sort out the bones of the story and check its structure. If I can’t do it on a single page, then I know something’s wrong, and I need to re-think.
I should add that a flowsheet is NOT a blueprint. It’s merely a guide. It can and will change, often, during the writing. But preparing it gives me the confidence to make a start, and it helps me stay on track while I’m struggling through that hated first draft. Above all, it encourages me to keep going until I reach the end. And that is all anyone can reasonably expect of a first draft!
Thank you Michelle!